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International relations

ASEAN makes concession to China

Summit statement drops references to South China Sea reclamation, arbitration

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Leaders pose during the 30th Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Manila on April 29.   © Reuters

MANILA -- In a nod to Beijing's lobbying, Southeast Asian leaders concluded a summit here on Saturday by avoiding references to China's island-building in the South China Sea and to a landmark arbitration ruling that rendered such projects illegal.

They also urged Pyongyang to stop provocative actions related to its nuclear and missile programs, amid rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, according to a chairman's statement belatedly released on Sunday.

Despite having done so at past summits, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this time did not mention "land reclamation and militarization" as actions that could complicate the situation in the South China Sea -- parts of which are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

A draft of the chairman's statement written before pre-summit meetings last Wednesday had also showed ASEAN leaders affirming the importance of "full respect to legal and diplomatic processes" in solving South China Sea disputes. The critical phrase, however, was shifted to the "ASEAN Community Vision 2025" section of the final document.

"Legal" processes refer to the "entire gamut" of international law, which includes the arbitration case, a local diplomat explained. Last July, a United Nations-backed arbitration panel ruled that Beijing's claim of ownership of nearly the entire South China Sea has no legal basis, siding with Manila, which had filed the case in 2013.

A retired Philippine diplomat expressed disappointment with the alteration to the chairman's document, calling it a "big difference" that "dilutes the statement on the South China Sea." 

"It's intended to be there," the former diplomat said, referring to the South China Sea section. "Now, it refers to the entire activities of ASEAN foreign relations."

Beijing has built at least seven artificial islands with military installations in the strategic waterway, which handles some $5 trillion worth of global trade annually. Prior to the summit, local media reported that Chinese diplomats in Manila had asked Philippine officials to avoid any references to the arbitration ruling, and to refrain from criticizing China. 

Diplomatic sources said some ASEAN members resisted the Chinese pressure, including Vietnam and Indonesia, which has no claims to the South China Sea but is upset over Chinese fishermen encroaching on its waters.

The final statement read: "We took note of the concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments in the area."

The leaders also "reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation in and over-flight over the South China Sea" -- a line that had been included in previous summit statements.

Juggling act

In his debut as chair of a regional summit, the challenge for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was to juggle the interests of ASEAN neighbors with those of China.

Duterte has shown a preference for bilateral talks with China on the maritime dispute, departing from his predecessor's hard-line approach. In October, he paid a four-day state visit to Beijing and returned home with $24 billion worth of investments and credit lines.

ASEAN, too, is wary of antagonizing China, since it has a larger goal of getting Beijing to sign a framework agreement on a code of conduct for the South China Sea. This would be a precursor to a long-delayed and supposedly legally binding pact governing behavior in the sea to avoid conflict.

Last Thursday, Duterte said he would "skip" the subject of the arbitration ruling during the summit, saying the issue was between the Philippines and China.

The chairman's statement said, "We also took note of the improvement of bilateral relations between some ASEAN member states and China." 

Pressure on Pyongyang

The ASEAN leaders also discussed other regional security issues, such as terrorism, as well as North Korea, which conducted a failed ballistic missile launch on Saturday.

"We urge the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] to immediately cease all actions that violate its international obligations and contravene United Nations Security Council resolutions," the statement said, using the official name of North Korea.

"The actions of the DPRK have resulted in an escalation of tensions that can affect peace and stability in the entire region," it added.

Another ASEAN summit will be held in November, coinciding with other multilateral meetings such as the East Asia Summit, which the leaders of China, Japan, the U.S. and other countries are expected to attend.

Japan, which has a separate territorial dispute with Beijing in the East China Sea, is closely watching how the South China Sea dispute plays out amid uncertainty over U.S. President Donald Trump's Asia policy.

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