Foreign ministers from the ten Southeast Asian countries said Saturday that they were “seriously concerned” by recent developments in the South China Sea.
China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea has shown few signs of easing, with Beijing positioning a surface to air missile system on Woody Island, one of the disputed Paracel Islands in the northern half of the South China Sea last week just after the conclusion of a historic US-ASEAN Summit in Sunnylands (See: “Why the US-ASEAN Sunnylands Summit Matters”). Newly released satellite imagery this week also showed that Beijing had built what could be a high-frequency radar system on Cuarteron reef in the Spratlys in the southern portion of the South China Sea.
As I noted in a previous piece, the United States and ASEAN had already expressed a strong stance on the South China Sea issue before these developments had occurred, with the outcome document at the Sunnylands summit explicitly calling for respect for arbitration and non-militarization (See: “A US-ASEAN South China Sea Failure At Sunnylands?”). This weekend, in a statement issued at the end of the foreign ministers’ annual retreat in the Lao capital of Vientiane, the ministers noted their worries about these new events in a joint statement.
A joint statement said that the ministers “remained seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments and took note of the concerns expressed by some members on the land reclamations and escalation of activities” in the South China Sea. It also added that these activities have “eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”
The statement, in line with previous ones issued by ASEAN in the past, indicates the group’s growing frustration with Chinese actions in the South China Sea as well as Beijing’s foot-dragging on a binding code of conduct that Southeast Asian states have been pushing for. But as the language of the statement suggests (note, for instance, that it says “concerns” on land reclamations and escalation were expressed by only “some members), it also indicates the traditional divisions among the grouping, which comprises four countries which actually have claims in the South China Sea – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – along with interested countries like Singapore and less interested ones which have very close ties to China such as Cambodia and Laos (See: “Does ASEAN Have a South China Sea Position?”).
Laos currently holds the ASEAN chairmanship – which rotates annually – and will preside over regional meetings to take place in September including the East Asia Summit, which is usually attended by leaders including U.S. president Barack Obama.
Apart from the South China Sea which tends to dominate media attention, the ministers also addressed other significant regional issues ranging from combating Islamic extremism to forging greater economic integration since with the recent formation of the ASEAN Economic Community.
They also called for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula as they have done so before. Following Pyongyang’s rocket launch on February 7, the foreign ministers had issued a separate statement expressing its concern.