KUALA LUMPUR — Ongoing tensions over the South China Sea heightened over the weekend, with China reacting angrily to the latest indications of growing U.S.- Japanese co-operation over the disputed sea.
Neither the U.S. nor Japan has a claim over the waters, unlike China, which claims around 80% of the sea. The Philippines, Vietnam and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations also have claims to parts of the South China Sea, through which around $5 trillion worth of trade passes each year.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday suggested Japan’s Self-Defense Force units could be sent to the area to protect freedom of navigation. His words — the latest signal of Japan’s nascent military assertiveness — backed recent U.S. moves to sail naval vessels through and fly bombers close to areas in which China has been building islands.
Reacting to Abe, Wong Hei, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, said, “China will be vigilant against Japan’s interference in the South China Sea issue, its military return to the South China Sea in particular.”
China is using the islands — partly made by dredging seafloor sand onto and around existing reefs and islets — to buttress its case that its territorial waters cover much of the South China Sea.
The U.S., meanwhile, is accusing China of using the artificial islands to undermine freedom of navigation; it describes the islets as military outposts.
Chinese naval commander Wu Shengli said his battalions have shown “enormous restraint” in the face of what he termed American provocations. His ships, he added, are ready to “defend our national sovereignty.”
While the Philippines and Vietnam have joined the U.S. in butting heads with China over the issue, ASEAN has typically avoided either forging a unified position regarding the South China Sea or directly backing member-states.
ASEAN members Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei also claim waters in the South China Sea but for the most part have not locked horns with China over the issue.
However there are signs this is changing. “The reaction to what it has done in the South China Sea for the past two years or so, whether in ASEAN or around the world, seems to be a net minus for China’s image,” Singaporean diplomat Ong Keng Yong told a forum on Friday in the city-state.
Earlier this week Southeast Asia’s foreign ministers “reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability, freedom of navigation in and overflight of the South China Sea,” according to an account given Friday by Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman.
In comments possibly aimed at China, Anifah added that “the ministers remain seriously concerned over the ongoing developments and urged all parties to exercise self restraint.”
He added that clearer rules over rights and responsibilities in the South China Sea are needed, including a long discussed but yet to be finalized code of conduct.
Recently, Indonesia said it could emulate the Philippines and take China to international courts over the issue.
Manila pushes its case
The Philippines has been the most vocal opponent of China’s South China Sea claims, continually raising the issue at international forums.
This weekend’s ongoing ASEAN summit here has been no exception, with President Benigno Aquino III mentioning the issue in several meetings — events also attended by U.S. President Barack Obama, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“We were happy that these matters were raised at the meetings today,” Aquino said late Saturday night.
During one of the meetings, which was attended by, among others, the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea, Aquino said, “We underscore the need for peaceful settlement of disputes in the sea known by many names, in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS [the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea]. We are determined to see our arbitration case to its final, legally binding conclusion, and likewise urge all actors to pursue the establishment of a code of conduct in the South China Sea.” The South China Sea is known as the West Philippine Sea in Manila, while Vietnam refers to the same waters as the East Sea.
Also on Saturday, President Barack Obama said China should cease its island building, telling a gathering of business leaders in Kuala Lumpur that the U.S. wants “to uphold freedom of navigation and ensure disputes in the region are solved peacefully.”
In a joint U.S. – ASEAN statement issued after their summit, both sides pressed for the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes “without resorting to the threat or use of force.”
In a rare intervention on the issue, and signalling that other Asian powers are increasingly concerned by tensions on the South China Sea, India Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Saturday that “India hopes that all parties [will] redouble efforts for early adoption of a Code of Conduct on the basis of consensus.”
The South China Sea quarrel comes after similar tensions during the APEC summit in Manila, which took place just before the ASEAN summit. While attending the APEC event in the Philippines, U.S. President Obama toured the Philippine Navy’s flagship BRP Gregorio del Pilar — another show of support over regional naval disputes. The Philippines and Vietnam last week also signed a strategic partnership and agreed to increase maritime co-operation, despite being rival claimants to parts of the South China Sea. Kuala Lumpur is also playing host to a number of other meetings this weekend. On Sunday, the East Asian Summit — a gathering featuring leaders from ASEAN, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. — takes place.
Sunday’s discussions are expected to veer to the issues of terrorism and how countries can combat the Islamic State group, responsible for recent deadly attacks in Egypt, France, Lebannon and Mali.
Najib Razak, the prime minister of Malaysia, which has a Muslim majority, on Saturday morning condemned the Islamic State in a strongly worded speech. “Be assured we stand with you against this new evil that blasphemes against the name of Islam,” said Najib, also the summit’s host.
Many main roads in Kuala Lumpur remain closed, and thousands of police and army personnel have been deployed around the city. Police here flagged concerns that some of the dozens of Malaysians thought to have joined the Islamic State group could have returned home to try to wage attacks during the weekend’s meetings.