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ASEAN opts for a soft stand on South China Sea

AT the conclusion of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit last Saturday, it issued the following Chairman’s Statement on the South China Sea:

“We recognized the long-term benefits that would be gained from having the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability, and sustainable development.

“We took note of the concerns expressed by some leaders over the recent developments in the area. We reaffirmed the importance of the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoiding actions that may further complicate the situation and pursuing the peaceful resolution of disputes without resorting to the threat or use of force.”

The final statement removed a reference in an earlier draft calling for a stop to “land reclamation and militarization” of the sea. That would have been a direct jab at China. There was also no reference to the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on the South China Sea, which rejected China’s claims to sovereignty over most of the sea covered by a nine-dash line based on an old China map.

The ASEAN thus maintained its old position against directly contradicting China which has reclaimed several islands in the disputed sea, building runways and other installations. It is said that Cambodia had blocked the original efforts at the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia last year to mention the Arbitral Court ruling. But it is also President Duterte’s view that this is not the time to take a hard position against China.

This was only the first ASEAN meeting with the Philippines as chairman this year. There will be other ASEAN meeting with other nations, including the East Asia Summit in November among 18 nations – the ten ASEAN nations plus the United States, Russia, China, India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea.

It will be difficult to say what may happen and be decided in a meeting of this magnitude with so many powerful and strong-willed nations, but the Philippines led by President Duterte may well play the role it has just played in the recently ended ASEAN Summit – that of consensus builder, seeker of common ground for agreement in the face of seemingly implacable situations.