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The Philippines is urging fellow Southeast Asian nations to resist what it called China’s effort to control all of the much-disputed, energy-rich South China Sea, parts of which are claimed by five other nations in the region.
Philippine Foreign Minister Albert Del Rosario told a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on April 26 that Beijing is “poised to consolidate de facto control of the South China Sea. He said the significance of this move is “urgent and far-reaching, going beyond the region to encompass the global community.”
China says it historically has had sovereignty over 90 percent of the region, ignoring the United Nations’ 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea, which recognizes territorial claims by other nations that border the body of water: Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
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Apparently Beijing is also ignoring a non-binding treaty, signed in 2002, in which both China and ASEAN’s 10 member nations promised no immediate development in the South China Sea, such as building on some of its smaller islands. That agreement was meant to become legally binding, though it hasn't yet.
In the meantime, China has been enlarging two islands under its control and begun building seven new small islands as part of a reclamation program. Satellite images indicate Chinese construction teams are building a runway suitable for military aircraft in the contested Spratly Islands and that they appear to be planning a second air strip.
Rosario said these two projects and perhaps others will likely be completed before China eventually agrees to sign the treaty with ASEAN that would make a moratorium on development in the region binding. Such a delay would only serve to legitimize China’s broad claims to the sea, Rosario said.
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This and other elements of the territorial dispute are seen as risking armed conflict with China as other nations bordering the sea assert their territorial rights.
As a result, ASEAN’s secretary general, Le Luong Minh, said Southeast Asian nations must act quickly to make the moratorium binding. “In the context of the ever-widening gap between the diplomatic track and the situation at sea,” he said, “it is very urgent now for ASEAN and China to early conclude the code of conduct” and thereby prevent potential armed conflict.
The host of the summit, Malaysia, isn’t expected to join in the criticism of Beijing’s ambitions in the sea, if only because China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner. In fact, that also may be true of Le’s home country, Vietnam.
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On May 1, 2014, China deployed an exploratory oil rig in a part of the sea claimed by Vietnam. This was followed by violent and even deadly demonstrations in Vietnam and confrontations at sea between Vietnamese boats trying to approach the rig and Chinese coast guard vessels sent to protect it.
In mid-July, however, China moved the rig, prompting some Vietnamese officials to say it was backing down. But about a month later, Hanoi sent Le Hong An, the fifth highest-ranking member of Vietnam’s Communist Party politburo, to China to help restore friendly relations.
With these two ASEAN members evidently trying to maintain warm ties with Beijing, how many more of the eight other member nations will try to do the same?
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com