Monday, August 11, 2014

Beijing, Manila Clash at Summit

The Wall Street Journal Asia - August 11, 2014

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar— China and the Philippines traded barbs over recent maritime tensions at a weekend gathering of regional foreign ministers, as Manila appeared to win muted support from Southeast Asian neighbors for its proposed freeze on provocative acts in the disputed South China Sea.

Both Beijing and Manila sought to steer the tone of talks, organized by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. China rejected the Philippine plan as disruptive to efforts to manage maritime disputes, while the Philippines accused Beijing of aggressively pursuing territorial claims and reneging on its commitment to peaceful diplomacy.

Asean acknowledged Manila’s proposal but didn’t adopt it, even though the U.S. and some Southeast Asian countries supported the idea. In a communiqué published Sunday, the 10-state bloc instead renewed calls for restraint and greater urgency in creating a code of conduct for the South China Sea—an endeavor that has stalled over the last decade. The outcome underscored China’s sway over protracted dispute-talks with Asean, while highlighting divisions between bloc members who prefer a tougher regional response against Beijing and others who are reluctant to antagonize a powerful economic partner. “China’s plan has been to stonewall diplomatically and trap Asean in these endless talks,” said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

Separately, Japan’s foreign minister and his Chinese counterpart held long-awaited discussions at the Myanmar meeting late Saturday— the first held by the countries’ foreign ministers since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in late 2012. But the Japanese and Chinese foreign ministries both declined to discuss details of the meeting. “We had a long, relaxed talk. We discussed how to improve of our relationship,” Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said.

By playing off differences between Asean members, Beijing has been relatively unimpeded in pursuing its broad diplomatic strategy for the South China Sea, dictating the pace and content of talks to suit its interests, and preventing rival powers such as the U.S. from influencing the process, Mr. Thayer said.

The Philippine proposal, formally tabled during the Asean Regional Forum in Myanmar, came on the heels of heightened regional tensions. China deployed an oil rig in waters also claimed by Vietnam in early May, triggering a maritime standoff that only eased after Beijing moved the rig in mid-July, while Chinese and Philippine officials also bickered over disputed waters.

Manila sought a moratorium on such activities under its “triple-action plan,” which also pushed for a speedy conclusion of a code of conduct in the South China Sea and urged that disputes be resolved through arbitration under international law.

The proposal received backing from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who attended the meeting. Some Asean members were also cautiously supportive, according to Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam.

But Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Beijing wouldn’t accept proposals that would “interrupt” conflict-resolution talks. He criticized Manila’s separate push to have its dispute with Beijing settled through the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration, a process that China has declined to participate in.

“If the Philippines wish to pursue its three-step plan, it should withdraw its push for international arbitration and return to the first step,” the Chinese official said. “They’ve already skipped straight to the third step. Their behavior already contradicts their own proposals.”

In an interview, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario dismissed Mr. Wang’s criticisms, saying the plan conforms to principles that Beijing signed up to in a 2002 Asean-China declaration, which outlines a framework for resolving disputes in the South China Sea.

“They should have no problem with the plan—it’s positive, it’s constructive, it’s comprehensive,” Mr. Del Rosario said on the sidelines of the Asean meeting. “China is trying to actualize their [claims] in advance of arbitration and the conclusion of a code of conduct,” he said.

The South China Sea is traversed by more than half the world’s trade and believed to hold vast energy reserves. China claims the waters almost in its entirety, contradicting rival claims by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

Despite the discord between Beijing and Manila, Asean and Chinese diplomats said they were hopeful of reaching consensus about their “commonalities” on the contested waters, which could then facilitate talks on implementing the 2002 declaration and creating a code of conduct for the disputed waters.

The U.S. also expressed guarded optimism on the process.

“We were trying to put something on the table that people can embrace, and a number of countries have decided that’s what they’re going to do,” Mr. Kerry said Sunday. “I think we’ll see some progress with respect to the South China Sea based on the conversations we’ve had here.”

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