South East Asian leaders will express concerns about Chinese aggression in the South China Sea at their regional summit Sunday, Indonesia’s foreign minister said.
An agreement to include a statement on China’s use of water cannon on Vietnamese vessels was reached at a pre-summit meeting of the foreign ministers of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Naypyitaw on Saturday. “We discussed it at length and there was a consensus among ASEAN foreign ministers to issue a statement on the recent developments in the South China Sea,” Marty Natalegawa said. Myanmar will host the ASEAN Summit for the first time since it joined the 10-nation bloc in 1997.
The meetings, held twice a year, end with declarations on regional issues such as economic integration and common security concerns.
The Philippines and Vietnam are lobbying this year for a strong statement from ASEAN against aggression in the South China Sea.
China this week relocated a deep-water drilling rig in waters claimed by Vietnam, and allegedly used water cannon to scatter Vietnamese patrol vessels, injuring six people.
Several countries have territorial disputes with Beijing over sovereignty claims to the sea, petroleum reserves and rights to fishing grounds.
Myanmar, as host this year, will play a crucial role in setting the tone of the final ASEAN statement on China. There were concerns that it might take a conciliatory approach to its giant neighbour, which is also its main foreign investor.
“China is not only the big friend of Myanmar, but China is also the biggest trading partner of most ASEAN countries. So China’s peaceful rise is important for the whole ASEAN region,” said Ye Htut, spokesman for Myanmar President Thein Sein.
But Mr. Natalegawa dismissed fears that the host was predisposed to favour China on the maritime issues.
“I think what was most important to note was how quickly the ASEAN ministers recognized that this development was something that must be responded to with a certain degree of urgency,” he said.
ASEAN has been pushing for a regional agreement with Beijing that includes a commitment to a peaceful solution to their territorial disputes, respect for international law and signing a Code of Conduct in the disputed areas.
It is seen as a test for ASEAN unity, in the face of Beijing’s growing political and economic clout in the region.
China was one of the few countries that stood by Myanmar when it was under military junta rule between 1988 and 2010, and propped it up during years of Western economic sanctions.
ASEAN groups Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar.