Asean has ‘serious concerns’ over South China Sea disputes – or does it?

Confusion as foreign ministers of bloc retract statement, citing ‘urgent amendments to be made’

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 June, 2016, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 June, 2016, 12:16am

There was confusion at the end of a meeting of foreign ministers from Southeast Asia and China, with an initial statement by Asean expressing “serious concerns” over recent developments in the disputed South China Sea retracted late last night

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations initially said the disputes should be resolved without resorting to threat or use of force, and stressed the importance of maintaining peace, security and freedom of navigation.

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“We expressed our serious concerns over recent and ongoing developments, which have eroded trust and confidence, ­increased tensions and which may have the potential to undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea,” a ­communique by the foreign ministers of the bloc said without identifying China.

But late last night, a Malaysian foreign ministry spokesperson told Agence France-Presse that the bloc had retracted the statement “as there are urgent amendments to be made”.

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The bloc’s finger-wagging, after a Special Asean-China ­Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Yuxi, comes as the ­region braces for a ruling by a UN tribunal on a claim brought by the Philippines against China, in which Beijing has refused to participate.

Reflecting the difficulty of the situation, a joint press ­conference by the Chinese and Singaporean foreign ministers, Wang Yi and Vivian Balakrishnan, slated for shortly after the meeting, was cancelled. The schedule of the ministers’ meeting was significantly altered and replaced by a series of informal two-way talks.

Wang said on Monday at a dinner for those attending the meeting that Beijing would reject any effort by external forces to “disturb” the stability of Southeast Asia. He called on Asean to cherish the hard-earned peace and not ­allow ­outside ­forces or problems disturb cooperation with China.

During a meeting with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, Wang called on ­Hanoi to help safeguard peace and stability in the sea, and to ­increase ties in trade and finance.

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In a sign of Beijing boosting its lobbying, the foreign ministry said more than 40 countries supported its position, the latest being Sierra Leone and Kenya. Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said some countries had been trying to blacken China’s name and control public opinion.

Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea. The Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan have overlapping claims.

Shen Shishun, a research ­fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, said the statement was not aimed solely at China. “The Asean countries are ­concerned about the impact of ­different parties’ actions in the South China Sea, including the US intervention and the Philippines bringing the disputes to an ­international tribunal,” Shen said.

“This also includes China’s ­actions in protecting its territory. But this is only their misunderstanding.”

Additional reporting by Reuters,
Kyodo and Agence France-Presse