The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders’ summit meeting was held in Manila, in the Philippines, on April 29th. Security issues in the regional area was an important topic outlined in the meeting agenda, however, the China expansion in the South China Sea’s (SCS) disputed water area was not directly discussed among all the leaders. Instead, the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte, in the opening statement, mentioned drug dealings and nuclear proliferation in the Korean Peninsula, but he avoided talking about China’s role in SCS.
ASEAN leaders converged about solving the North Korean issue, which is very urgent and China should be the leading party and pillar to negotiate with the North Korea. All of the states that attended the meeting repeated that they strongly support the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which is the largest factor of instability.
With that said, the SCS is a territorial issue between China, Taiwan, and ASEAN countries, such as Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The overlapping territory is a significant sea lane, and it is rich with fishing resources and natural gas. China has an assertive claim on the territory based on its historical evidence, and it has been establishing artificial island and military bases since 2014 in the disputed area.
The Chairman also said that the meeting “reaffirmed the shared commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security, and stability in the region… in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”
The statement was released after the meeting and it dropped the “land reclamation and militarization” wording, which was the phrase that was included in last year’s report about the SCS issue. This action is seen as a concession to China from the ASEANs. A similarly softened statement came from President Duterte as well, who had won back the fishing fight from China for the Philippines. With that said, President Duterte differs from the last administration, which had a close tie with the US.
The ASEAN statement also noted that “the improving cooperation between ASEAN and China,” which sounds more optimistic than last year statement that referred to “tensions” and an “escalation of activities.” All of the parties who were involved will complete a framework by mid-2017, which intends to settle the SCS dispute. After nearly a decade of harsh conflicts over the SCS, there is an important question: will this meeting be the beginning of all the states starting to work together, rather than individually asserting themselves with no practical peace-solving strategy?
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