Almost immediately after this year’s ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) began in Bali, with the hotly contested Spratly Islands firmly on the agenda, members agreed to agree on what they had agreed to previously, the Philippines put their foot in it, and China reacted with familiar belligerence.
Usually the annual ARF – designed for handling regional security issues – has found it politically convenient to shy away from the Spratlys, with ASEAN countries always fearing a round of heavy bullying from China, which defies geographical realities and insists the island chain belongs to it.
This year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China have so far agreed to heed the guidelines on implementing the Declaration of Conduct (DOC), which China’s Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin described in Bali ‘as an important milestone document on the cooperation among China and ASEAN countries.’
This means little – the DOC that provides a framework for future deliberations on territorial claims on the islands was signed way back in 2002.
Discussions so far have been dominated by a push by the 10-nation ASEAN bloc to get talks aimed at convincing North Korea to abandon its nuclear programme back on track, climate change and food security.
The Spratlys are supposed to be clearly on the agenda for the first time, with Indonesia taking the lead in regards to getting the parties involved – including China – to sit down and address the issue.
Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and The Philippines also have claims, particularly parts of the chain that lie within proximity of their territorial limits.
As talks on North Korea got underway, Manila decided enough was enough, and sent a political delegation of four to Pagasa Island, which is populated by about 60 Filipinos, within the disputed chain.
They declared it Philippine territory, which outraged Beijing. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu insisted China held ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over the island chain. The only problem is, of course, that China’s neighbours don’t agree, while Manila was certainly having none of it.
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said that the Kalayaan group of islands was well within the country’s territory and the trip by Teodoro Brawner Baguilat, Ben Evardone, Walden Bello and Arlene Bag-ao was legitimate.
‘There was a municipality there, municipality of Kalayaan, and obviously that’s part of the Philippine jurisdiction, that’s part of the Philippine sovereignty,’ he said.
In Hanoi, rare protests have been held in the lead-up to ARF over China’s stance. Tensions have risen significantly in the area over recent years, with China flexing its growing economic and military might over the chain, which is believed to contain large reserves of oil and gas.
There’s also a push to drop recognition of the name the ‘South China Sea.’ Manila is referring to it as the West Philippine Sea, while Malaysian and Brunei claims are also not without foundation. Taiwan’s claim, though, is fanciful.
Regardless of the merits, a military build-up in the area continues, and the Philippines are now following up the political visits with the deployment of warships. China will no doubt be unimpressed, and so far, the ARF has said little.