Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman (and this year’s ARF chairman) said that the ASEAN members agreed that “exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate tension must be enhanced.”
The 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, an agreement between ASEAN and China, already saw all parties agree “to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features.” Construction activities are generally considered to fall under the vague rubric of “activities that would complicate or escalate disputes” and China, the Philippines, and Vietnam have all accused one another of violating the DoC through construction in the disputed area (which all have engaged in).
The call for a halt to land reclamation would specify that activity as an action that should be governed by “self-restraint.”
Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario said that China’s “massive reclamation activities … have undermined peace, security and stability in the South China Sea.” He urged ASEAN to deal with the issue.
The proposal for a voluntary halt to land reclamation and construction activities is not new. In summer 2014, the United States previously championed a “freeze” on provocative actions in the South China Sea, including land reclamation and construction. The South China Sea claimants, however, were not enthusiastic about the idea, with the exception of the Philippines (Manila, having already filed its arbitration case against China was likely eager to show its own restraint). But by March 2015, the Philippines had also scrapped the freeze and resumed its own work on disputed features.
The 2014 proposal, put forward at last year’s ARF summit, received little support. China, however, was the most vocal about opposing it, with Yi Xianliang, the deputy director of the Boundary and Ocean Affairs Department in China’s Foreign Ministry, saying that the Chinese government would decide for itself what actions to undertake in the South China Sea. He added that the proposed freeze undermined progress on negotiating a code of conduct for the disputed area.
The United States changed tactics slightly this year, calling for a halt to land reclamation alone (not general construction) and for an end to militarization of disputed features. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter laid that proposal out in his remarks at the 2015 Shangri-La Dialogue. That tweak, apparently, helped make the idea more palatable to other ASEAN claimants, who cannot hope to match the scale and pace of China’s land reclamation projects. Despite starting decades later, China has now reclaimed four times as much land as the other claimants combined.
If ASEAN does join together to call for a halt on land reclamation, it will reflect in part the group’s frustration with slow progress on a formal Code of Conduct with China governing actions in the South China Sea. “We have got to move beyond philosophical discussions to actually say what is in the substance of the agreement,” Singapore’s foreign minister, K. Shanmugam, said.
Meanwhile, China has continued its annual tradition of protesting that the South China Sea should not be discussed at all during the annual ASEAN meetings. “This is not the right forum. This is a forum for promoting cooperation,” China’s vice foreign minister, Liu Zhenmin, told Reuters on Monday. “If the U.S. raises the issue we shall of course object. We hope they will not.”
That hope will be in vain, as it has been each year since then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought the issue to the public eye at the 2010 ARF Summit. Malaysia, this year’s ASEAN chair, has already indicated the South China Sea will be raised at the meeting. As Shanmugam (the Singaporean foreign minister) put it, the “South China Sea is an issue. We cannot pretend that it’s not an issue.”
If the proposal is discussed, expect China to object. Earlier this week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed a freeze on provocative actions as “unrealistic.” “What’s the standard for freezing? Who is to judge the process of the freezing activity? These are very complex questions,” Wang said. “So the freeze proposal may seem even-handed, but it’s actually unrealistic and will not work in practice.”