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International Relations

ASEAN 'concern' resurfaces over contested waters with China

A shift in tone as the Philippines rotates out as the regional bloc's chair

Some at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Retreat voiced concerns over land reclamation and other activities in the South China Sea that undermine peace and stability. (Photo by Mayuko Tani)

SINGAPORE -- The situation in the South China Sea, where China has moved aggressively amid conflicting territorial claims, was highlighted as a source of concern in an ASEAN foreign ministers' statement released Tuesday, with Singapore taking a more balanced approach as this year's chair than the Philippines did in 2017.

Singapore released the chairman's statement after the foreign ministers' retreat held here. Following the unofficial meeting, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told reporters that the territorial claims in South China Sea are not resolved and that talks on drawing up a code of conduct to avoid conflicts will be "very complicated."

But Balakrishnan also shared the city-state's resolve to help advance the talks as chair. "I believe there is shared good faith and goodwill on both sides" for efforts toward a significant advance this year, he said.

The statement does not single out China explicitly. But it notes "concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and activities in the [South China Sea] area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region."

In an apparent jab at Beijing, the document also reaffirms the need to "exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation."

China has ignored an international tribunal's July 2016 ruling that rejects its claims in the South China Sea, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has repeatedly voiced concerns about the situation at such venues as summit meetings. But the Philippines progressively toned down language against China last year amid President Rodrigo Duterte's pivot to Beijing for economic support. The chairman's statement from the ASEAN summit that November made no mention of "concern" over the issue.

Singapore will build on the latest statement to draft a new one for the upcoming summit in April. Other member countries are hopeful that Singapore will take a more balanced approach.

But leading negotiations on the text of the code of conduct will be no easy task, given member states' varying stances on the South China Sea issue. The likes of Cambodia and Laos are more pro-Beijing, while others including Vietnam take a harder line. The more concrete the text becomes, the harder it will be to align all member states. And how much an effect the code will have in restraining China is also unknown.

Meanwhile, in a gesture of collaboration with China, defense chiefs of the 10 member states met Tuesday with Chinese counterpart Chang Wanquan and agreed to conduct joint maritime exercises in late 2018. Such joint drills are unprecedented, according to Singapore's defense ministry.

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