By Agence France Presse
China on Sunday scored a diplomatic coup in its campaign to weaken regional resistance against its sweeping claims to the South China Sea when Southeast Asian nations issued a diluted statement on the dispute and agreed to Beijing’s terms on talks.
After two days of tense meetings on the dispute in the Philippine capital, foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) issued a joint communique that diplomats involved said was carefully worded to avoid angering China.
The release of the statement came shortly after the ministers met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and agreed on a framework for conducting negotiations on the decades-long row that included key clauses advocated by China.
“This is an important outcome of our joint effort,” Wang told reporters as he celebrated the agreement.
China claims nearly all of the strategically vital sea, through which $5 trillion in annual shipping trade passes and is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits.
Its sweeping claims overlap with those of ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan.
China has dramatically expanded its presence in the contested areas in recent years by building giant artificial islands that could be used as military bases, raising concerns it will eventually establish de facto control over the waters.
In what two diplomats involved said was another victory for Beijing on Sunday, ASEAN members declined to say in their joint statement that the hoped-for code of conduct with China be “legally binding.”
Vietnam, the most determined critic of China on the issue, had insisted during two days of negotiations that ASEAN insist the code be legally binding, arguing otherwise it would be meaningless.
The ASEAN ministers failed to release the joint statement as expected after meeting on Saturday because of their differences on the sea issue, with Vietnam pushing for tougher language and Cambodia lobbying hard for China.