South China Sea divides ASEAN again, no consensus yet

Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Brunei's Foreign Minister Mohamed Bolkiah, Cambodia's Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Indonesia's Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi pose for photographs at the 5th East Asia Summmit at the 48th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, August 6, 2015. REUTERS/Olivia Harris

The broiling tensions over competing territorial claims South China Sea has once again brought out deep differences among ASEAN countries at the meeting of the grouping’s foreign ministers in Kuala Lumpur. ASEAN countries have not been able to agree on a concluding statement due to a lack of consensus over how the paragraph on the disputed water body should be worded in the communique. The recent assertive posturing by China in the South China Sea, manifested in the construction of artificial islands by China in the waters, has made it a major point of contention among the members.

 “The paragraph relating to the South China Sea is causing some problems,” said Singapore’s Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam in Kuala Lampur. He added that there was “no consensus on how the paragraph ought to be”. “The joint communique is a work in progress,” he stressed.

The rising tensions in the South China Sea dominated the talks in Kuala Lampur with ASEAN Foreign Ministers also meeting their foreign counterparts, including from the United States and China.

China is said to have requested the members to leave the dispute off the agenda, but the members reacted strongly saying it was too important to be ignored and left out of the agenda. While an earlier draft communique by the ASEAN members said it was concerned about the developments in the South China Sea and emphasised there should be no use of threats or force, the members failed to reach any agreement on the final communique, thereby exposing the divisions within ASEAN.

China had earlier issued a statement in June saying it would soon complete some of the reclamation of the Spratly archipelago of South China Sea, and added that it would continue to build facilities on the man-made islands.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said he’s hopeful that China and its smaller neighbours can come to an effective resolution of territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

India’s position

India has been concerned over escalating disputes in South China Sea, and has been vigorously advocating freedom of navigation. India has stepped up its outreach to Vietnam and has signed an agreement with Hanoi for oil exploration in the disputed waters. The India-Vietnam joint statement last year stressed that “freedom of navigation and overflight in the East Sea should not be impeded and called the parties concerned to exercise restraint, avoid threats or use of force”. India has also extended a Line of Credit worth USD 100 million to Vietnam. To protect its crucial maritime and security interests, India plans to step up cooperation with the US. The two countries came out with a Joint Vision Statement on Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region during the visit of US President Barack Obama to New Delhi in January this year.


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