Obama Puts South China Sea Back on Agenda at Summit

U.S. President Barack Obama boards Air Force One to depart at the conclusion of his participation in the ASEAN Summits, from Wattay International Airport in Vientiane, Laos September 8, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Barack Obama boards Air Force One to depart at the conclusion of his participation in the ASEAN Summits, from Wattay International Airport in Vientiane, Laos, Thursday. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

President Barack Obama put the long-simmering dispute in the South China Sea front and center on the agenda at a regional summit Thursday as it became clear that most of the other leaders gathered in the Laotian capital were going to let China off with a mild rebuke over its territorial expansion in the resource-rich waters.

“We will continue to work to ensure that disputes are resolved peacefully, including in the South China Sea,” Obama said at a meeting with leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

He said an international arbitration ruling on July 12 against China was binding and “helped to clarify maritime rights in the region.”

ASEAN held a separate meeting later Thursday with eight world powers, including China and the U.S, in a gathering known as the East Asia Summit. The participants were expected to let China off with a muted reprimand over its expansionist activities in South China Sea, according to a draft of their joint statement. The final version was not immediately released.

The U.S. has repeatedly expressed concern over Beijing’s actions in the resource-rich sea. Obama brought that up again.

Referring to the arbitration panel’s ruling that invalidated China’s territorial claims, Obama said, “I realize this raises tensions but I also look forward to discussing how we can constructively move forward together to lower tensions and promote diplomacy and regional stability.”

China shot back with comments aimed at the United States.

“A couple of extra-regional countries still wanted to use the occasion of the East Asia Summit to talk about the South China Sea, particularly to press on the regional countries to abide by the arbitration, which is untimely and inappropriate,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told reporters. He said it is “also against the trend in the region to resolve the disputes by cooperation and dialogue. In some sense they are being self-isolated,” he said.

The East Asia Summit draft statement said ASEAN and its partners “reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability and security and freedom of navigation in and over flight in the South China Sea.”

“Several leaders remained seriously concerned over recent developments in the South China Sea. … We stressed the importance for the parties concerned to resolve their disputes by peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international laws,” it said.

China has turned shoals and coral reefs into seven man-made islands and built airstrips capable of handling military aircraft on three of them.

The East Asia Summit draft statement was less forceful than the statement that ASEAN leaders issued on Wednesday to express concern over China’s island-building.

It said ASEAN “took note of the concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”

The use of the phrase “some leaders” in the two statements underscores the fundamental problem ASEAN has in dealing with China — not all its members are willing to scold Beijing. Cambodia, for example, remains in China’s camp, as does Laos to a large extent, preventing any robust statement from the consensus-bound ASEAN group.

U.S. officials, however, said there were other critical elements in the ASEAN statement that China failed to block, and which they said amounted to a strong diplomatic rebuke of Beijing.

China pulled out all the stops to block any reference to the words “recent activities,” ”serious concern,” ”reclamation,” ”militarization,” ”loss of trust” and “need to respect legal processes,” but failed as all these phrases made it into the statement, said a senior U.S. administration official who requested anonymity to discuss diplomatic discussions.

Though Beijing recently announced a $600 million aid package for ally Cambodia, China was unable to get it to block the statement, the official said. Cambodia did however block an explicit mention of the tribunal’s ruling, which the Philippines was willing to concede, the official said.

The issue of ownership of territories in the South China Sea has come to dominate ASEAN summits in recent years. China claims virtually the entire sea as its own, citing historical reasons. That has pitted it against the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, all members of ASEAN, which have overlapping claims.

The Philippines took its dispute with China to the international tribunal some years ago, but the country’s new president, Rodrigo Duterte, who took office on June 30, has been more conciliatory toward China.

Liu, the Chinese vice foreign minister, pointed that out.

Duterte “has been sending messages for improving relations with China since he took office. In fact there have been contacts in different channels between China and the Philippines, including nonofficial channels and official diplomatic channels. We are confident that the relations between us will be improved with the joint efforts of the two countries,” he said.

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