ASEAN firms up South China Sea stance as
Beijing lobbies over statement
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[April 29, 2017]
By Manuel Mogato and Enrico Dela Cruz
MANILA (Reuters) - Southeast Asian
countries have altered a statement to be issued at Saturday's ASEAN
summit to include references to militarization and island-building in
the South China Sea, the latest draft shows, in a move likely to
Chinese embassy representatives in Manila had sought to influence the
content of the communique by lobbying Philippine officials, two ASEAN
diplomatic sources told Reuters.
However, four ASEAN member states disagreed with omitting "land
reclamation and militarization" - terms included in the statement issued
last year in Laos, but not featured in an earlier draft of this year's
statement seen on Wednesday.
China is not a member of the Association of South East Asian Nations,
and is not attending the summit. China embassy officials in Manila could
not be reached and China's foreign ministry did not immediately respond
to request for comment.
ASEAN references to the South China Sea issue typically do not name
China. Beijing is extremely sensitive to anything it perceives as a
veiled reference to its expansion of its seven manmade islands in the
Spratly archipelago, including with hangers, runways, radars and
The final version of the statement has yet to be agreed, but changes so
far indicate ASEAN is resisting moves by China to keep its contentious
activities in the strategic waterway off ASEAN's official agenda.
China's lobbying, and its burgeoning friendship with Philippine
President Rodrigo Duterte, may not have been enough to influence
Manila's position either.
"The Philippines is under too much pressure," one of the sources said.
This year's summit comes at a time of uncertainty about U.S. interests
in the region and whether it will maintain its maritime presence to
counter China's assertiveness.
Chinese officials pressed for words that might allude to last year's
international arbitration ruling to be kept out of the statement, the
diplomats said, particularly the term "full respect for legal and
The latest draft still includes that, although it was moved out of the
South China Sea section to another.
"They do not want any phrase linked to the arbitration case," one source
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An aerial view of China occupied Subi Reef at Spratly Islands in
disputed South China Sea April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Francis
The Hague ruling, in a case brought by the Philippines in 2013,
angered China because it invalidated China's claim of sovereignty
over almost the entire South China Sea. China refuses to recognize
As part of his engagement with China, Duterte has decided not to
press it to abide by the arbitration award anytime soon. On Thursday
he said it was pointless for ASEAN to pressure China.
In his address to open the leaders' summit, Duterte made no mention
of the South China Sea, but touched on many issues central to his
Duterte mentioned extremism, piracy, interference in a country's
affairs, and his signature fight against drugs, for which he has
been widely condemned over the deaths of thousands of Filipinos.
"The illegal drug trade apparatus is massive. But it is not
impregnable," he said. "With political will and cooperation, it can
be dismantled, it can be destroyed before it destroys our
Duterte then hosted two meetings with ASEAN leaders, which were not
open to media.
ASEAN and China are hoping to this year agree on a framework to
create a code of conduct over the South China Sea, 15 years after
committing to draft it. Some ASEAN diplomats doubt China is sincere
about agreeing to a set of rules.
In unusually direct comments for an ASEAN Secretary General, Le
Luong Minh on Thursday told Reuters the code needed to be legally
binding to put a stop to "unilateral actions", because a previous
commitment to play fair had been ignored.
(Additional reporting by John Ruwitch in Shanghai; Writing by Martin
Petty; Editing by Lincoln Feast)
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