— Officials with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China are set to meet on Saturday and Sunday to discuss territorial tensions in the South China Sea. The long-awaited meeting in Suzhou, China comes as the Philippines and China continue their heated rhetoric about conflicting claims in the resource rich waters.
The latest sore spot between Manila and Beijing was the Philippine Defense department’s discovery last week of 75 concrete blocks at Scarborough Shoal- allegedly laid there by China. Defense officials call them a “prelude to construction.”
The outcropping is about 200 kilometers west of the northern Philippines and more than 800 kilometers southeast of China. It was the site of a tense standoff last year when ships from both countries faced each other. The Philippines said China roped off the popular fishing area and its surveillance and military ships have since kept Filipino fishermen out.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said Thursday the department was “still studying options” on what to do about the blocks as it focused on gathering evidence in an arbitration case against China. He said the blocks’ presence at the shoal would have an impact on the talks this weekend.
“Yes, I think that’s a significant part of it. You need a code, obviously, for managing the tensions there,” he said.
China claims practically the entire South China Sea. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have partial or total claims to the waters that are heavily traveled, rich in abundant fishing with potentially major hydrocarbon reserves.
ASEAN and China signed a declaration 11 years ago on how they would conduct themselves should disputes arise over the competing claims. But the declaration is not legally binding and the Philippines, which has complained of multiple intrusions into its waters, has been calling for something stronger.
China has taken the position that it would move “when the time is ripe.” And this year it signaled it would take up consultations toward a more binding agreement.
At the beginning of the year, the Philippines filed an arbitration case with a United Nations tribunal over what it calls China’s “excessive claims” to the sea. China, which has always pressed for one-on-one talks with no outside party involvement, has rejected the bid.
On Wednesday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters the Philippines’ allegations about the blocks at Scarborough Shoal, which China calls Huangyan Island, were “completely fabricated.”
He said, “What we would like to stress is that Chinese activities around the Huangyan Islands and surrounding waters are completely within Chinese sovereignty. We ask the Philippines to stop provocative actions, to see eye-to-eye with China, and protect the peace and stability in the South China Sea."
Rommel Banloai said right now Philippine-China relations were “sour.” He is executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research. Banlaoi said heading into this weekend’s meeting the Philippines would face challenges as it pushed for an actual code of conduct (COC).
“ASEAN remains very, very soft on the issue. I think ASEAN has already made a position and that is not very close to the original position of the Philippine government,” he said.
Banlaoi said not all members of ASEAN “had the same apprehension as the Philippines” over China’s presence in the disputed waters. Just four of the 10 ASEAN countries have claims in the sea.
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Senior Fellow Ian Storey said he did not expect China to have any “breakthroughs at this meeting.”
“So they’ll seek to draw out this process for as long as possible and use all the stalling tactics they can to make sure this… is dragged out for as long as possible,” he said.
Storey expected this “long process” would result in “another symbolic document that does not really mitigate tensions or alter the central drivers of the dispute.”
Foreign Affairs Secretary del Rosario said there was “consensus and solidarity” among ASEAN senior officials in urging China toward an “expeditious conclusion” to the COC and that he was hopeful China would act.