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Beijing taking charge in debate on South China Sea

Accord with ASEAN quiets objections to territorial expansion

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, center, hailed as a sign of progress an agreement with ASEAN to negotiate a code of conduct in the South China Sea.   © Reuters/Pool

MANILA -- China continues to accuse nations such as Japan and the U.S. that have criticized its military buildup in the South China Sea of meddling in regional affairs -- and it can now cite a pact with Southeast Asia's regional bloc as evidence that the parties involved can handle the matter on their own.

Developments in the disputed waterway loomed large Monday at the ASEAN Regional Forum and related meetings here. The forum brings together the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and 17 other participants, including the U.S., Japan and China.

Washington and Tokyo used the occasion to air concerns about China's ongoing island-building in the South China Sea and construction of military facilities such as runways on those artificial landmasses, which are created from dredged-up sand. Beijing apparently shot back, refusing to accept those criticisms on the grounds that disputes in the sea concern neither Japan nor the U.S. -- a position China has long held.

And unlike last year, the nations that are involved now have something to show in the way of a resolution: Foreign ministers from China and ASEAN on Sunday adopted a framework under which the countries will negotiate a code of conduct to prevent conflict in the South China Sea. According to Wang Yi, China's foreign minister, the pact is a sign that relations between the two sides have reached maturity.

Crumbling resistance

ASEAN as a whole has traditionally expressed deep concerns about China's buildup in the sea, despite some differences in individual members' attitudes toward Beijing. But that region-wide consensus had apparently disintegrated by the time foreign ministers from the bloc met Saturday. While a joint statement on the meeting noted that "some ministers" expressed concern regarding "the land reclamations and activities in the area," the group overall refrained from overtly condemning China's actions, insisting only on "the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation" in and over the channel.

The Philippines' transformation under President Rodrigo Duterte -- from ASEAN's harshest critic of Beijing to a relatively lenient partner -- has done much to disrupt the bloc's coordination on the South China Sea issue. Meanwhile, nearly all members of the group are strengthening trade and investment ties to the Asian heavyweight, and have moderated their stances accordingly. Vietnam is the lone remaining China hawk in the bloc.

Even an international arbitration court's July 2016 ruling that a Chinese territorial claim asserting sovereignty over nearly all of the sea was invalid went largely undiscussed this year. Only Japan and a few other nations referred to that judgment during the East Asia Summit foreign ministers' meeting, which took place Monday ahead of regional forum talks. China's Wang hailed this change in the tenor of South China Sea discussions, claiming real progress has been made.

Go ahead

Of course, some signs of friction persist: A meeting planned for Monday between Wang and his Vietnamese counterpart was postponed at the last minute. A Chinese foreign ministry source claimed the two had already met, though it is unclear whether those talks extended beyond a brief, informal conversation. Wang also said just one or two foreign ministers had expressed concern about the island buildup.

But Washington, for its part, seems unlikely to put up much resistance. Previous U.S. administrations have strongly insisted that international law be enforced in the South China Sea. But America's tone has softened somewhat this year, largely because China's cooperation is seen as essential to controlling North Korea as the isolated state ramps up military provocations. This leniency toward Beijing has made it a good deal simpler for China to tighten control over the region.

How the U.S. under President Donald Trump intends to handle ASEAN as a whole has been largely unclear since he took office in January. The post of ambassador to ASEAN, filled under Trump's predecessor Barack Obama, has sat vacant under the new administration -- a sign that, at least for the time being, America is little inclined to take decisive action in Asia, and that China is free to proceed.

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