The Philippines' foreign minister on Sunday told his counterparts from the 10-member Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) that China is “poised to take de facto control” of the South China Sea through its reclamation work on disputed reefs there.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting that the group should tell China what it is doing is wrong “and that the massive reclamations should be immediately stopped.”
The Philippines came to this meeting and will attend the immediately succeeding ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting of heads of state in Kuala Lumpur with the express purpose of warning about China’s rapid build-out of artificial islands across seven reefs in the Spratly Islands.
Anifah Aman, foreign minister of this year’s ASEAN host country Malaysia, said the block would “much appreciate” it if China could stop the work and sit down to discuss the situation.
Want matter to be settled
“The ASEAN member states want to see that this matter is to be settled, to complete amicability because it does affect not just the claimant states but ASEAN as a whole. Because we're in this region and if there's any instability in the region, then even those non-claimant states will be affected," Aman said.
The seven reefs being dredged, which the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan claim, are in various stages of completion. Some have multi-storied structures, others have harbors capable of docking military ships and at least one reef has a nearly completed runway that can accommodate military planes.
China said it has “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea’s islands and waters. ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, along with Taiwan, all have competing claims in the resource-rich and heavily traveled sea.
Carl Thayer, a security analyst with the Australian Defense Force Academy, said any group expression on the situation will have to get through many layers.
“The foreign ministers could make one statement and the leaders could water it down. And no doubt China is working all over the place behind the scenes to prevent consensus on this. And [Malaysian] Prime Minister Najib [Razak], his DNA is not to confront China," Thayer said.
The disputed waters of the South China Sea are widely seen as a potential flash point. In 2002, ASEAN and China signed a non-binding agreement to manage the disputes peacefully. And work on a legally binding Code of Conduct has been stretched out over the following years.
The Philippines and Vietnam are leading the call for faster work on completing the Code, which the United States and other countries are also pushing for.
Manila filed a case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in 2013 questioning China’s far-ranging claims in the sea. Beijing rejects the case, citing an opt-out clause when it signed on to the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Malaysia is a major trade partner of China.
Aman called China an important partner of ASEAN and it is reciprocal for ASEAN “so there is no need for any confrontational efforts or confrontational situations whereby it will not bring any benefits to any country.”