Asean fails to reprimand China

Relax: Rodrigo Duterte was in diplomatic mode. Will be make a convivial host next year? Source: YouTube

The Asean summit in Laos has to let China off with a muted reprimand over its expansion into the South China Sea, according to a draft of the joint statement.

The mild language, despite growing frustrations in the region over China’s claims, will disappoint many as US President Barack Obama, who has repeatedly expressed concern over China’s expansionist policies in the contested region, attended the event.

“We reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability and security and freedom of navigation in and over-flight in the South China Sea,” said the draft. The six-page statement devoted a single paragraph to the South China Sea.

“Several leaders remained seriously concerned over recent developments in the South China Sea … We stressed the importance for the parties concerned to resolve their disputes by peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international laws,” the statement said.

There was no mention of the land reclamation by China, which is turning coral reefs and rocky outcrops into seven artificial islands with three airstrips.

It was also announced that the leaders “took note of the concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region”.

The words “some leaders” draws attention to the problems of dealing with China as Cambodia continues to veto any united stance over the issue, and Laos also remains in Beijing’s sphere of influence. The two members have largely blocked any robust statement from the consensus-bound Asean. They have no claim to the sea.

The Asean statement made no reference to Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague’s ruling on July 12 that dismissed Chinese claims to the sea.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has largely taken a more conciliatory approach to China than his predecessor, Benigno Aquino, and has said he would not raise the dispute in an adversarial manner that might upset Beijing. He even offered to hand China use of the islands in exchange for some fast Chinese train lines.

The US military is concerned that Beijing’s might turn the Scarborough Shoal into another island, giving China control a passageway to the Taiwan Strait.

Duterte urged Asean to be “dynamic and vibrant partners” as he formally agreed to take the revolving chair for next year.

“With great honour and humility, I accept the chairmanship of the Asean from our excellent host, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. I look forward to seeing you all in the Philippines in 2017,” the “Punisher” said.

Duterte was in diplomatic mode when he told the conference: “We will pursue initiatives and enhance cooperation with global partners to ensure that Asean citizens live in peace, stability, security and growth, all the while remaining Asean’s centrality, unity and solidarity.

“The Philippines is ready and willing to steer and guide the association. But crucial to the realisation of our goals is the cooperation and support of all Asean member states and our dialogue partners,” Duterte said.