An early release of Asean chairman’s statement ahead of the leaders’ summit in Kuala Lumpur says the group’s views on South China Sea disputes will remain largely unchanged from last year.
The statement called for peace, security, respect for international law and freedom of navigation in the busy waters. It also repeated the Asean call for a legally binding code of conduct.
Several members of the regional bloc have overlapping claims with China, notably Vietnam and the Philippines. Proposals for a multiparty solution have been shot down by Beijing which says it will only engage in bilateral talks to handle territorial disputes.
China, Taiwan and four Asean members – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – claim the Spratly Islands, believed to hold oil and mineral deposits. Washington has said it would not intervene in the territorial disputes but promised to champion freedom of navigation in a sea where more than US$5 trillion of trade passes annually.
Malaysia, the current Asean chair, will host the group’s annual summit in Kuala Lumpur on November 21 but usually many of the decisions announced from the summit are agreed ahead of meetings.
Kung Phoak, president of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies, said the maritime disagreement would take years to resolve and a code of conduct could decrease tension in the interim.
“The main goal of [the code] is to prevent conflicts and armed disputes and to avoid the tension and instability which may be stepping up the conflict. So it is a common interest of Asean, China and other international partners such as the US,” he said.
Kung Phoak added that Cambodia, which is not involved in the dispute, had contributed much to finding a peaceful solution.
However, John Ciorciari of the University of Michigan said the bloc’s “consensus-based diplomacy” made finding a collective position on the South China Sea difficult.
He said key Asean governments, besides Vietnam and the Philippines, should show “the willingness to impose meaningful costs on Beijing. Even an Asean leaders’ statement criticising China’s island-building campaign probably would not stop the reclamation. Driving discussions back into diplomatic channels where compromise is possible will require convincing Chinese leaders that pressing ahead militarily will not serve their interests.”
Some members, notably Cambodia, have been unwilling to criticise Beijing or call for a multilateral approach.
China also has South China Sea disputes with Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia.