KUALA LUMPUR — Pushing global terrorism into the background, the simmering South China Sea territorial dispute again dominated discussions Sunday at the East Asia Summit that brought together world powers — including China, Japan and the U.S. — and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The 10th annual summit had been expected to focus on the threat of international terrorism following remarks made by President Barack Obama on Friday. However, many of the U.S. president’s counterparts turned out to be more concerned about the dispute with China.
“The South China Sea was the central issue,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters afterward.
During his speech, outgoing Philippine President Benigno Aquino openly criticized China’s large-scale reclamation of islands in the contested waters of the South China Sea where ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam also have overlapping claims.
Indonesia also has begun raising concerns recently about the Natuna Islands in the southwestern part of the South China Sea. It has an exclusive economic zone in the archipelago that could conflict with China’s regional demarcation — the contentious, self-declared “nine-dash line.”
Aquino recounted aggressive actions in the South China Sea, which China has claimed virtually entirely as its own. On his presidential watch, a naval vessel from China saw off a survey vessel authorized by the Philippine government to conduct seismic studies at Reed Bank, 80 miles (129km) from the Philippine island of Palawan.
Fishing boats from China, meanwhile, were caught 120 miles (193km) from the central Philippine province of Zambales with catches that included marine life covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
“We had been asked not to make these incidents public, and we agreed in an effort to de-escalate the situation,” Aquino told his 17 counterparts. “However, the incidents did not cease.”
While Aquino talked about the sea dispute in broader terms during his ASEAN meetings Saturday, on Sunday he cited specific cases and spoke more forcefully when addressing the heads of government of Australia, China, Japan, India, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, the U.S. and his nine counterparts from ASEAN.
In a recent incident, Aquino said, a frigate from China with No. 571 marked on its bow “accosted and challenged another survey ship conducting studies on a contract we awarded.” According to Aquino, the incident was within 40 nautical miles of Palawan.
Sidestepping a direct response to Aquino’s contentions, China’s vice foreign minister, Liu Zhenmin, told a hastily convened post-summit press briefing that “the premier also stressed that freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea has never been a problem.” Liu was referring to comments made by Premier Li Keqiang of China at the summit.
During the meeting, others expressed their concerns. Indonesian President Joko Widodo pressed for the inclusion of “additional language for maritime cooperation” in the statement issued by the heads of government attending the summit, Tom Lembong, Indonesia’s trade minister, told the Nikkei Asian Review.
Abe, who had earlier raised the possibility of Japanese ships being sent to the South China Sea, said after the summit, “We were able to secure consensus on language about freedom of navigation.”
According to diplomatic sources, Obama urged all claimants to halt reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea during his speech. The U.S. president also prodded his counterparts on freedom of navigation and overflights. Some $5 trillion in trade annually passes through what is one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.
In late October, the U.S. demonstrated its right to navigate the waters by sailing a warship past two of seven artificial islands created by Beijing, directly challenging China’s territorial claims. Washington has said it will conduct more patrols in the area, and also has since flown B-52 bombers over it.
Abe echoed Obama’s call for disputes to be solved “in a peaceful way, without coercion or intimidation,” and said territorial claims “must be based on international law.” Though he did not rule out Japanese ships heading for the South China Sea, he was circumspect Sunday. “We have no concrete plan,” he said.
Diplomats said that China’s Li, in an apparent bid to defuse tension, agreed to speed up drafting the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea, a legally binding protocol.
Even so, the Philippines said that with Japanese and U.S. backing it will pursue its petition at a UN court of arbitration at The Hague in the Netherlands contesting China’s sweeping territorial claim.
“As the arbitration process we have entered into continues to its logical conclusion, we are hopeful that China would honor its word and respect the rule of law,” Aquino said in his last speech at an East Asia Summit prior to stepping down next year. “The world is watching and expects no less from a responsible global leader.”