The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) voiced alarm on Saturday over escalating tensions in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) after members Vietnam and Philippines squared off against Beijing in the disputed waters.
Asean foreign ministers “expressed serious concerns over the ongoing developments” in the sea, which is subject to a web of bitter overlapping claims, on the eve of a leaders’ summit in Naypyidaw.
Tensions in the South China Sea soared this week after Beijing moved a drilling rig into waters that are also claimed by Hanoi, sparking a stand-off in which Vietnam said its boats were attacked.
The incident drew a statement of concern from the United Nations.
Manila, which has asked a UN tribunal to rule on China’s claims over most of the sea, also detained a Chinese fishing boat in disputed territory.
The Asean ministers “urged all parties concerned . . . to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions which could undermine peace and stability in the area” in a statement issued on Saturday.
The statement also called on claimants to “resolve disputes by peaceful means without resorting to threat or use of force”.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said the ministers’ meeting was dominated by maritime rows.
China and Vietnam, which fought a brief border war in 1979, have been locked in a longstanding territorial dispute over their contested waters, and frequently trade diplomatic barbs over oil exploration, fishing rights and the Spratly and Paracel Islands.
Beijing claims sovereign rights to almost the whole of the South China Sea, which is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits.
The Philippines and Vietnam are the most vocal critics of China’s claims among the 10-member bloc.
But the South China Sea is also claimed in part by Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
Natalegawa said the Asean statement was aimed “to be in support of peace and peaceful settlement of disputes”.
Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said Asean did not want to take sides.
But he said if the bloc stayed silent, “I think our desire to play a central role, our desire to be united, our desire to have a peaceful region—all of these and Asean’s own integrity I think will be seriously damaged”.
Tackle sea row
President Benigno Aquino 3rd on Saturday urged Asean to face up to the threat posed by China’s contentious sea claims.
Even though not all Asean members are involved in maritime territorial disputes with China, Aquino said the issue concerned the security of the region as a whole.
“We wish to emphasize, uphold and follow the rule of law in resolving these territorial issues so that the rights of all countries involved will be recognized and respected,” Aquino said before leaving for Myanmar.
“This step mirrors our belief that an issue that affects all countries in the region cannot be effectively resolved merely through a dialogue between two countries,” he added.
Aquino said the issue concerned the “security” of Southeast Asia.
China has rejected arbitration in the Philippines’ UN case, preferring to settle the issue through bilateral negotiations while insisting its sovereignty over these areas was “indisputable”.
The other Asean members are Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand.
The weekend summit in Naypyidaw follows a visit to Asia late last month by US President Barack Obama in which he restated support for Asian allies the Philippines and Japan, which is locked in its own maritime territorial dispute with China.
More than 5,000 US and Filipino troops are currently engaged in annual war games in the Philippines, with a focus on maritime security.