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South China Sea tensions prompt ASEAN foreign ministers into a display of unity -- of sorts

Thongloun Sisoulith, foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Laos, speaks at press conference in Vientiane on Feb. 27. (Photo by Minoru Satake)

VIENTIANE   Southeast Asian foreign ministers met in the Laotian capital on Feb. 27 and reiterated the significance of unrestricted maritime and aerial operations over the South China Sea.

     The statement comes with tension around the disputed waterway ratcheting up now that China is installing military equipment in the area.

     "The ministers reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, security, stability and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea," according to a press statement announced by Thongloun Sisoulith, Laos' foreign minister and deputy prime minister. The landlocked country currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

     The ministers also "remained seriously concerned over the recent and ongoing developments and took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area," according to the statement.

     The U.S. accused Beijing of militarizing the sea by deploying surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the Paracel archipelago and radar arrays on Cuarteron Reef in the Spratlys. Richard Javad Heydarian, a geopolitical analyst in Manila, said Beijing is building the infrastructure for an air defense identification zone, which could restrict flights over the area.

     The Philippines and Vietnam raised the issue of Beijing's activity in the area during the retreat, their diplomats said.

     Ministers of the 10-member bloc also reaffirmed their commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or Unclos.

     The Philippines in 2013 brought a territorial dispute to the Permanent Court of Arbitration and expects a decision in May. Beijing has said it will not acknowledge any ruling, based on its claim that the convention grants it an exception.

     The ministers' remarks on the South China Sea issue carry over some diplomatic momentum that President Obama got rolling at a "special summit' of ASEAN leaders in California in the middle of February. Obama and his ASEAN peers ended the meeting by issuing the Sunnylands Declaration, which reaffirms the rules-based approach to solving territorial disputes.

     Nina Hachigian, U.S. ambassador to ASEAN, on Feb. 24 moved to maintain the tone of the Sunnylands Declaration.

     "What we're doing is being very active in building regional consensus around principles that undergird the rules-based order," Hachigian said.

     She vowed that the U.S. will stand up for "the rights of claimants to use international law, speaking with one voice with ASEAN on the fundamental importance of peace and stability, freedom of navigation and overflight, self-restraint and the need to find peaceful solutions to these disputes."

     "The Sunnylands momentum was clearly maintained in the retreat," Heydarian said on March 1, reacting to the content of the chairman's statement.

     But while Thongloun mentioned the Sunnylands Declaration during his press conference, the chairman's press statement did not refer to it, highlighting Laos' apprehension. China is Laos' top trading partner and investor.

     But, nevertheless, Heydarian believes China-friendly Laos "acted as a responsible chair during the retreat."

     During the retreat, the ministers also renewed ASEAN's centrality principle, which insists on unity and showing a common front.

     "The ministers stressed the need for and importance of preserving and promoting ASEAN centrality and its relevance in the evolving regional architecture," the statement says.

     The renewal of the vow, one diplomat said, comes amid fears that "some dialogue partners might take advantage of the different views of ASEAN countries."

     ASEAN is caught in the middle of a maritime showdown between the U.S. and China. Both superpowers have taken advantage of the bloc's loose alliance to advance their own agenda.

     In several meetings in Malaysia last year, diplomats wrangled about the wording of communiques regarding the South China Sea. In 2012, they failed to produce a joint statement in a meeting chaired by Cambodia, a close Beijing ally.

     On Feb. 27, ministers pledged to "work together with dialogue partners." They also stressed the need for ASEAN "to play a leading role in shaping the evolving regional architecture."

Nikkei deputy editor Kenji Kawase in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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