May 4, 2017 10:00 am JST

Southeast Asian summit statement packs less of a punch on China

Key passages cut after lobbying by Beijing

CLIFF VENZON, Nikkei staff writer

MANILA The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is celebrating 50 years of togetherness this year, but the focus at its latest summit was how the bloc would handle an issue that divides its members: territorial friction with Beijing in the South China Sea.

The answer: In a nod to China's lobbying, ASEAN leaders concluded the summit on April 29 by avoiding references to Chinese island-building in the sea and to a landmark arbitration ruling that rendered such projects illegal.

Despite having done so at past summits, the association 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.

The change in tone coincides with the debut of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte as the chair of the summit. He has departed from his predecessor's hard-line approach toward China and shown a preference for bilateral talks on the maritime dispute.

A draft of the chairman's statement written before pre-summit meetings on April 26 had included an affirmation by ASEAN leaders on the importance of "full respect for 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, released belatedly on April 30.

"Legal" processes refer to the "entire gamut" of international law, which includes the arbitration case, a local diplomat explained. Last July, an arbitration panel in The Hague 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 concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments in the area."

JUGGLING ACT As chairman, the challenge for Duterte was to juggle the interests of ASEAN neighbors with those of China -- a key source of investment. In October, he paid a four-day state visit to Beijing and returned home with $24 billion worth of investments and credit lines.

On April 27, 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 also said, "We took note of the improving cooperation between ASEAN and China."

The ASEAN leaders discussed other regional security issues as well, including terrorism and North Korea, which conducted a ballistic missile launch on April 29 that failed.

"We urge the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] to immediately comply fully with its obligations arising from all relevant 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."

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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