Friction on the South China Sea will be on the agenda at the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) annual spring retreat Sunday and Monday in Kuala Lumpur.
Diplomatic tensions between the Philippines and China are ratcheting up with a war of words, a water cannon incident and the next step in an arbitration case related to claims in the South China Sea.
If Philippine President Benigno Aquino has his way, the issue will dominate the talks. The Philippine Foreign Affairs Department says his priority is to raise concerns over China’s rapid build-out of artificial islands on seven disputed outcroppings in the sea. But past ASEAN meetings have downplayed the issue under pressure from China.
Beijing claims practically the entire South China Sea. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all have competing claims in the resource-rich sea.
Host country Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Anifa Aman said this week, Malaysia will call for faster work on a legally-binding Code of Conduct that would guide peaceful management of the disputes. He also said that no claimant country should take actions that could potentially escalate tensions.
Joint military exercises with US
China has said in the past the Philippines raises tensions at sea by holding joint military drills with the United States off the coast of the South China Sea.
As this year’s war games got underway an editorial in the state-run Global Times Tuesday called the Philippines a “cute little submissive” to the U.S., noting that their strategic partnership aimed at countering China’s growing presence in the region has not amounted to much.
Philippine Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda responded that Beijing was entitled to its opinion, which Manila disagrees with.
“We don’t understand where this insecurity of the Chinese towards us is coming from," he said. "Where do we have the wherewithal to compete against China as a super power?”
The prickly exchange of words came in the wake of a recent report from Philippine fishermen who said a Chinese coast guard ship used a water cannon to chase them away from Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines claims the shoal, which is 200 kilometers west of it northern coast. Three years ago, China took control of it after a tense standoff between the two countries.
Beijing once again admonished Manila for encroaching on the shoal it calls Huangyan Island. At a regular briefing Wednesday China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei said the fishermen “affected the safety and order” at Scarborough Shoal.
He said, "We call upon the Philippines side to better educate and control their own fishermen, and stop all actions that will harm Chinese sovereignty and territorial rights, and more earnestly respect Chinese sovereignty."
The Philippines filed a case in 2013 with the Permanent Court of Arbitration, questioning China’s sweeping claim. China rejects arbitration and is not responding to proceedings. However it published a position paper questioning the Tribunal’s jurisdiction over the case. The Tribunal announced yesterday it scheduled the first hearing on the case for July.
With the pending case and China’s ever more visible assertion of its sovereignty in the disputed waters, some observers say Malaysia will likely steer clear of the disputes, citing China’s strong economic ties with individual member states of ASEAN.