Members states’ maritime rows with China over the South China Sea would be “less of a concern” for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) as its stance on seeking non-adversarial resolutions is not seen to change, according to analysts.
In an interview, analyst Antonio “Butch” Valdes said the 10-member regional bloc is more concerned about the United States’ military presence in the South China Sea which, according to him, prompted China’s effort to secure control over the disputed waters.
“Our issue on the West Philippine Sea with China is less of a concern for them (Asean-member states) than the intimidating presence of fleets of US nuclear warships in the disputed areas. … the very reason why China intends to militarize the recently constructed airstrip,” Valdes told The Manila Times.
But Valdes, who heads the Save the Nation Movement, said he believed efforts of both US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping to improve relations could pave the way for the resolution of territorial disputes.
Trump and Xi were in Da Nang, Vietnam, where they attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), an economic, trade and investment forum among 21 Pacific Rim countries, including the Philippines, the US, China and Russia.
“But yesterday’s (Thursday’s) Trump and Xi speeches in Beijing, plus today’s at the APEC in Da Nang, may pave the way into improved relations between the two superpowers and a future resolution of our territorial issues,” Vadez said.
“Asean position on this is less important than the above developments,” he added.
Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, said he expects that Asean’s non-adversarial approach to resolving the territorial disputes with China will remain, citing the Philippines’ move to settle disputes through talks and negotiation.
“The Asean agenda [regarding the]South China Sea is to have a code of conduct with all claimants, including China. I would expect any statement from Asean will not be antagonistic to China,” Casiple told The Times in a text message.
“Philippines, likewise, is already doing negotiations on SCS (South China Sea) with China; it will not jeopardize these,” he added.
President Rodrigo Duterte, head of this year’s Asean summit, on Thursday night underscored the need for a final South China Sea code of conduct, which he said, is necessary for claimants to safely navigate through the disputed sea now heavily militarized by China.
“The best way is to have a written code of conduct. So you just read it and you’d know that you are not crossing boundaries because as of now, it is a contested claim,” Duterte told reporters in Vietnam.
The president said he would stress the Asean’s position to Chinese President Xi Jinping when they meet on Saturday, November 1, on the sidelines of APEC Summit in Vietnam.
“I will tell him straight. ‘You know, Mr President, the whole of the Asean is worried about how we should behave in the seas that are now militarized,’” Duterte said.
“Those arms and they are not there for any other purpose. They are not decorations,” he noted.
Duterte said a code of conduct would guide claimants on how their ships and planes can pass through the South China Sea without provoking the ire of other claimants.
“We should know what is the conduct that they would like to be,” the President said.
Asean and China just completed a framework for the South China Sea code of conduct. They are expected to start work on the code of conduct itself.
Four Asean member-countries are claiming parts of the disputed waters: the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. China is claiming virtually the entire sea.
In recent speeches, Duterte said he would be “frank” with Xi and would ask him to clarify China’s plans in the South China Sea.
The President has maintained to push for “soft-landing” approach to address the spat on the resource-rich waters despite winning a petition lodged before the international court.
On July 12, 2016, the Philippines won the petition filed by the Aquino administration at the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration, which ruled that China’s claim over the contested waters is invalid.
Beijing has continued to ignore the ruling, asserting “indisputable sovereignty” over the waters and stepping up island-building and militarization activities instead.
Next week, leaders from Asean and its dialogue partners Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, India, China, Russia, and the US will gather for meetings on key issues such as terrorism, maritime security and human rights.