China's push for bilateral territorial talks behind ASEAN roadblock
HANOI – China’s insistence on settling territorial disputes with Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea bilaterally was a major reason behind their meeting of foreign ministers falling into disarray last week, diplomatic sources said Sunday.
At the end of the special meeting Tuesday, China had sought to release a 10-point consensus document with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but the bloc rejected it due to its wording, according to the ASEAN sources.
The sources quoted part of the China-proposed agreement as saying that the countries “directly concerned shall resolve through friendly consultations and negotiations their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means.”
The meeting in the southwestern Chinese city of Yuxi took place at a delicate time, as a ruling from a U.N. tribunal in an arbitration case brought by the Philippines to challenge China’s claims in the South China is expected within weeks.
Many experts believe the ruling will be unfavorable for China, which is also locked in territorial rows with three other members of the association — Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam — as well as Taiwan.
Ahead of the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, China is believed to have aimed for more international support over its position on the disputes by announcing the list of agreements with ASEAN.
One of the 10 points was calling on “countries outside” to play “a constructive role for peace and stability in the region,” according to the sources.
China’s massive reclamation of islands in the contested waters in recent years and building of military facilities on them have caused widespread concerns, not only among the claimants.
Among non-claimants, the United States and its allies in the region, including Australia and Japan, as well as some European countries have seen China’s actions in the South China Sea as going against rule-based order.
Of those ASEAN countries that have no claims in the internationally important waterway, also rich in fish and potential oil and gas reserves, Indonesia and Singapore have also become more vocal in expressing their opposition to any unilateral action to change the status quo in the region.
But China, which claims almost the whole South China Sea, is strongly averse to what it perceives as non-claimants’ interference in the disputes and any attempts at multilateral arbitration.
Following the ministerial meeting near the Yunnan provincial capital of Kunming, ASEAN issued a tough-worded joint statement that said the group “cannot ignore what is happening in the South China Sea.”
But ASEAN later quickly retracted the joint statement.
Chinese officials have insisted that the ministers’ discussions were productive and there was never an official ASEAN document issued following the closed-door event.
The officials also put the blame on foreign media reports for hyping up tensions.
“A consensus of all ASEAN countries is required before ASEAN issues any official document,” Chinese Foreign Ministry’s top spokesman Lu Kang told reporters a day after the meeting.
Countries that have very close ties with China, including Cambodia and Laos, were opposed to issuing a joint statement of ASEAN foreign ministers, according to diplomats with knowledge of the situation.
Three days after the confusion, Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry, revealed there was initially a consensus over the statement among all ASEAN foreign ministers.
The ministry defended making the statement available to the media, saying “subsequent developments” over the document took place after the departure of the ministers from the Chinese city.
Some ASEAN members’ frustration over China’s approach to the territorial disputes dates back to April, when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a whirlwind tour of Brunei, Cambodia and Laos.
At the end of the tour, without taking account of ASEAN as a whole, Wang said China has reached a four-point consensus with the three countries, which included the idea that the territorial disputes should be resolved through talks by the countries directly concerned.