A divided ASEAN takes a soft line against Beijing over South China Sea
Filipino President Aquino slams China’s imperialist tendencies at sea, which he deems a “threat to the security and stability of the region”. Summit host Malaysian Prime Minister Razak soft-pedals the issue to avoid direct conflicts. Meanwhile, the association is working on a code of conduct whilst maintaining a non-confrontational approach to dispute resolution.

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Southeast Asian leaders on Monday stopped short of taking a harder line against Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, but summit host Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said that the group would push for a quick conclusion to a binding code of conduct to govern behavior in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

The Malaysian leader spoke at the end of the 26th summit of the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which took place over the weekend in Kuala Lumpur. At the final press conference, he said that the association would continue its non-confrontational, constructive approach to dispute resolution, effectively keeping tensions with Beijing at bay. This falls short of demands for a tough stance by some members.

“We will continue to engage China in a constructive way, and China understands our position,” the Malaysian leader said. “And we hope to be able to influence China that it’s also in their interests not to be seen as confronting ASEAN, and that any attempt to destabilise this region will not benefit China either.”

However, Manila warned that Beijing is poised to take "de facto control" with its construction of artificial islands on reefs claimed by other countries in the area. For Filipino President Benigno Aquino, "The massive reclamation activities undertaken by China pose a threat to the security and stability of the region, cause irreparable damage to the marine environment and threaten the livelihood of many of our peoples".

The Filipino president said ASEAN must have political will and unite against "activities that exacerbate tensions" in the region. Indeed, earlier during the summit, it seemed that ASEAN might take a tough line against Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. However, in the end Mr Razak reasserted the organisation’s soft approach towards the Chinese juggernaut.

The main problem is that ASEAN is divided. In the past, the Philippines criticised Cambodia, a close ally of China in the Asia-Pacific region, for bowing to pressure from Beijing and blocking ASEAN from issuing statements and documents unpalatable to Beijing. Precisely for this reason, in 2012 ASEAN summit ended without a final declaration.

Concern over China’s “imperialism” in the East and South China Seas is not limited to the Philippines. Vietnam too has expressed objections. However, Manila went one step further and took its dispute to a UN tribunal, albeit one without binding authority.

Broadly speaking, China claims a large chunk of the South and East China Seas (almost 85 per cent), including the Spratly and Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.

Southeast Asian nations are backed by the United States. Washington rejects as “illegal" and "irrational" Beijing’s “cow tongue” claim in the South China Sea, which amounts to 80 per cent of 3.5-million km2 wide-sea.

With oil and gas in the seabed, the region has great economic and geopolitical importance, and carries an important strategic value for any hegemon.