RESPONDING to the rising tension in the South China Sea caused by China’s massive reclamation and construction activities, leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are seeking plans to maintain peace and exercise “self-restraint” to avoid further disputes.
At the ASEAN summit set on Monday, April 27, leaders will be asked to sign a statement to address concerns over China’s assertion of sovereignty over nearly the entire South China Sea. Though, the statement will avoid any direct criticism over China’s actions that are alarming the neighboring countries.
The Philippines has filed a case before an international arbitral tribunal, however, China is still rapidly creating islets in the contested reefs. Many countries fear that the seized areas may be used as a Chinese military base.
The draft is expected to be signed by leaders from Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. It will stress the need for “exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities, not to resort to threat or use of force, and for the parties concerned to resolve their dispute/difference through peaceful means,” an Agence France-Presse source said.
The statement also calls for a discussion with China over the binding Code of Conduct (COC) governing behavior, which needs “to be intensified, to ensure the expedition of the establishment of an effective COC.”
The ASEAN has avidly encouraged China to agree on a code of conduct.
The said code would fortify a non-binding 2002 pledge by countries with competing claims over the waters to respect freedom of navigation, resolve disputes peacefully and refrain from inflaming the situation.
The Philippines earlier urged its ASEAN counterparts to make a stand in the dispute. President Benigno Aquino III is planning to bring up the matter during Monday’s summit.
“We have delivered the message to China very, very clearly that we want this (code of conduct) to be speeded up and hopefully they will give a positive response,” Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said.
However, China has explicitly said that it possesses the freedom to do whatever it wants in its own waters.
Countries who are not equally powerful are trying to avoid the issue, asserting that China has immense trade relations with and diplomatic leverage over ASEAN members.
Four members of the association, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have been contesting with China over parts of the South China Sea.
Though Philippines opted to resolve the matter in a diplomatic and legal way, China refused to take part in the case proceedings before the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Meanwhile, the arbitral tribunal set a hearing in July to tackle the issues of jurisdiction and admissibility of the Philippines’ case.
“If, after the July hearing, the Tribunal determines that there are jurisdictional objections that do not possess an exclusively preliminary character, then, in accordance with Article 20(3) of the Rules of Procedure, such pleas will be reserved for consideration and decision at a later stage of the proceedings,” it added.
The Tribunal clarified that the proceedings and an eventual verdict will be rendered even without China’s participation as long as it is satisfied that it has jurisdiction and that “the claim is well founded in fact and law.”
(With reports from Inquirer.net and Rappler.com)
(LA Weekend April 25-28, 2015 Sec. A pg.1)