VIENTIANE — Southeast Asian leaders are likely to avoid any official mention at a summit this week of an arbitration ruling that shot down China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, according to a draft of their final declaration, in a victory for Beijing’s diplomatic clout.
But the draft also expresses strongly stated concern about Beijing’s construction of man-made islands in the South China Sea, which Southeast Asian countries fear could destabilize the region.
The draft, obtained Monday by The Associated Press, is being fine-tuned by officials for the leaders to approve ahead of the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that begins Tuesday in the Laotian capital. The final version is to be released Thursday, but most major points including those concerning the South China Sea are expected to remain largely unchanged.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte also plans to ask China’s premier at a meeting between ASEAN and other regional leaders whether China is trying to develop another disputed reef, Scarborough Shoal, off his country’s northwestern coast, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.
Duterte said last week that the Philippine coast guard has sighted Chinese barges at Scarborough, which he said could presage the transformation of the Chinese-held reef into another man-made island. One of the Chinese vessels had what appeared to be a crane, according to a Philippine official who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss classified intelligence.
Lorenzana said surveillance photos taken from boats were blurry so the government deployed a plane on Saturday which spotted 10 Chinese ships, including four coast guard vessels, four others that looked like barges and two vessels that could carry people. One of the vessels had drums and tubes.
“This is very worrisome because it’s ours,” Lorenzana told reporters in Vientiane. “If they succeed in building an island and construct (structures) there, we can’t take it back anymore.”
The Philippine government asked China’s ambassador in Manila about the sighting of the Chinese barges, but the envoy denied any island building was under way, Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay told the AP.
China sparked widespread alarm when it converted seven reefs in the Spratly Islands into islands that the United States says could be transformed into military bases to reinforce Beijing’s territorial claims and intimidate rival claimant countries.
“We remain seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments and took note of the concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area,” the draft of the ASEAN leaders’ statement says. The reclamation and other acts “have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”
Duterte has taken a more conciliatory stance than his predecessor toward China. But a confirmation of Chinese reclamation activities at Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground where Filipino fishermen have been forced away by Beijing’s coast guard, could impede relations.
U.S. officials have also expressed deep concern over the possibility of China developing Scarborough into an island or starting to erect concrete structures there, which could reinforce Beijing’s control over a swathe of the South China Sea.
Aside from China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia have been contesting all or parts of the strategic waterway, an important route for commerce and oil that fuel Asia’s economies.
After China seized Scarborough following a tense 2012 maritime standoff, the Philippines took its territorial dispute with China to international arbitration, a move that was condemned by Beijing, which prefers one-on-one negotiations to prevent the United States and its allies from meddling.
In a landmark ruling in July, the arbitration tribunal invalidated China’s expansive claims, including in areas where Beijing built its islands, and admonished China for blocking Filipino fishermen at Scarborough, where it said both Chinese and Filipinos could fish.
China condemned the ruling as a sham and moved to prevent it from being recognized in ASEAN communiques, something that its close ally, Cambodia, has backed in meetings of the 10-nation bloc, which operates by consensus.
Peace and Freedom Commentary
In the cauldron that is the South China Sea, China has never been so confident as it is today.
The top 20 economic power in the world are just completing visits to Xi Jinping in China — where events started with a not very nuanced insult to the President of the United States.
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders are assembling for a meeting in one of China’s loyal clients, Laos. Together with Cambodia, Laos gives China assurance than no ASEAN consensus can be reached that will say anything that might cause Chinese disapproval. In fact, the word “China” may never even be spoken publicly in the Laotian capital this week — because that’s what China wants.
China already has military installations peppered throughout the South China Sea Sea, and is a position to control all the shipping, air traffic, commerce, natural resources, food, and energy withing the vast domain of the South China Sea.
China’s de facto “ownership” of the South China Sea is a tremendous conquest, without firing a shot, especially since less than 30 days ago the Permanent Court for Arbitration in the Hague handed down a decision that China’s “nine dash line” was without merit and illegal.
But never mind international law — a figment of the imagination of other, lesser nations. Western nations. Everyone in the world world understands Chinese dominion and greatness — never mind if a few human rights get squashed.
The Philippines seems now to have signed up to the Chinese way of thinking. What would have been considered mass murder in the Philippines last April, is now considered anti-drug law enforcement. What may have been a pipe-bomb or two of unknown origin, now has the Filipino people on the cusp of martial law, from Luzon Strait and Baguio to the Sulu Sea.
And without much proof that anyone has seen.
Now ASEAN and the world at large watches as China is about to control the seas from Taiwan to Singapore and beyond, both northward toward Japan and westward past Singapore and into the Indian Ocean.
China could move its grand strategy ahead this week in Vientiane, without so much as a public mention of “China.”
Pretty amazing state of affairs.
But there was a glimmer of light from Hong Kong, where some plucky youngsters will become a part of the Legislative Council and at least keep some discussion of democracy and human rights rights alive in Asia, for as long as China cares to allow them to imagine freedom….
We at Peace and Freedom have catalogued much of the history of recent events and issues around the South China Sea for the past five years. Use these keywords to see more:
These keywords will give you the best results:
Carpio, China, Chinese fishing, Chinese reclamation, coral reef destruction, depleting fish stocks, destructive fishing practices,Duterte, environmental, illegal fishing, Justice Carpio, marine park,marine protected area,natural resources, Obama, Permanent Court of Arbitration, Philippine Business for Environmental Stewardship,Philippines, preserve the environment, Scarborough Shoal, South China Sea, UNCLOS, Vietnam, West Philippine Sea, Malaysia, Indonesia, illegal fishing, ASEAN,
Obama On Philippines President Duterte — Obama said he had heard about the comment from Mr. Duterte and instructed his aides to determine whether it would still be productive to hold the face-to-face meeting
Fear Governs The Philippines: Duterte declared a nationwide “State of Lawlessness” on September 2, 2016 — But Philippine Police Started a Rampage of Killing Lawlessly When Duterte Was Elected on May 9, 2016
Photo: Chinese H-6 bomber patrols near Scarborough Shoal in the Philippines. Xinhua photo