In a situation where U.S. allies in Asia have previously criticized Beijing over its actions in disputed maritime territory, China won approval from Southeast Asian leaders on Saturday at a meeting.
With a statement noting “the improving cooperation between Asean and China” in the South China Sea, a summit in Manila of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has enjoyed an upswing in relations with China for some time, was ended.
The leaders also recognized “the long-term benefits” of peace, stability and sustainable development in the region and has welcomed “progress to complete a framework of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea” by the middle of this year.
Sensitive issues like an international court that rejected China’s claims to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea in a case brought by the Philippines under the administration of former president Benigno Aquino, land reclamation or militarization, were avoided by the leaders.
With competing claims such as Vietnam and the Philippines, Southeast Asian nations have been angered in the past by China’s efforts to assert its dominance over the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes that carries more than $5 trillion in annual trade. In a broader tussle for regional influence between China and the U.S. in Asia, the waterway has become a flash-point.
China’s recent actions in the South China Sea were not discussed at the leaders’ meeting on Saturday, describing any talks on the issue as “useless”, said Philippines President and current Asean chairman Rodrigo Duterte speaking after the meeting.
“The biggest victor in diplomacy in this summit is China,” Lauro Baja, former Philippine foreign affairs undersecretary, said on Saturday. “Asean seems to feel and act under the shadows of China.”
“China is engaging Asean in a very successful diplomatic position,” Baja said. “Asean considers what China feels, what China thinks and how China will act in its decisions.”
Not an issue for Asean were the arguments between the Philippines and China over disputed maritime territory, Duterte told reporters before the summit. In order to discuss issues related to the South China Sea, a Philippine delegation is due to travel to China in May.
“Closer relations with China has lent itself to a more cohesive Asean and promises to prevent war and escalated conflict in our part of the world,” Wilfrido Villacorta, a former Philippine Ambassador to Asean and also a former Deputy Secretary-General of Asean, said in an email Saturday.
“President Duterte’s inclusive foreign policy has significantly transformed the security architecture and balance of power in Southeast Asia.”
According to a readout of the call provided by the White House, Duterte spoke with U.S. President Donald Trump to pass on Asean concerns on regional security, including the threat posed by North Korea after wrapping up the Asean summit.
“President Trump enjoyed the conversation and said that he is looking forward to visiting the Philippines in November to participate in the East Asia Summit and the U.S.-ASEAN Summit,” according to the White House statement.
(Adapted from Bloomberg)