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Tuesday, August 4, 2015
Malaysia: Asean Urged to Stand Up to Beijing Over South China Sea
Asean Urged to Stand Up to Beijing Over South China Sea
Malaysia tells Asean to step up its role in solving long-standing territorial disputes in the South China Sea
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak speaking at the 48th Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers meeting in Kuala Lumpur on August 4.PHOTO: REUTERS
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—The Association of Southeast Asian Nations should be central to tackling the region’s territorial disputes, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Tuesday, setting up a clash with China, which opposes Asean’s involvement.
At the start of summit meetings in Kuala Lumpur this week involving the 10 Asean countries and other Asia-Pacific states, including China and the U.S., Mr. Najib said it was time for Asean to “take a more active role” in safeguarding regional security, including handling “overlapping [territorial] claims.”
Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam are locked in long-running territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. These have worsened in recent months, with Chinese island-building projects in contested waters upsetting rival claimants. Asean has generally taken a back-seat role, however, since most of its members aren’t directly involved in the disputes.
But on Tuesday, Asean Secretary-General Le Luong Minh agreed with Mr. Najib’s call for a more assertive and collectively responsive Southeast Asia, criticizing Beijing for “eroding the very trust and confidence…between Asean and China” through its “reclamation activities, illegal fishing bans and the harassment of fishermen” in the South China Sea.
He urged Beijing to engage “in a really meaningful phase of consultations” with Asean to ease tensions.
The U.S. has likewise encouraged Asean to impose itself on the South China Sea problem preoccupying several of its members. It would only be “natural” for Asean to address what is a “critical aspect of regional security,” State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington Monday.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in the Malaysian capital Tuesday, and will likely meet his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, later this week, according to Mr. Toner.
An airstrip construction on the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea is pictured in this April 2, 2015 handout satellite image.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
China had “repeatedly urged” the U.S. to stay out of South China Sea disputes, China’s official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary on Tuesday. “Hyping up the South China Sea issue will undermine the generally stable situation in the region which has not come about easily,” it said.
China would work with Asean to develop a proposed code of conductregulating behavior in the South China Sea, Mr. Wang told reporters in Singapore on Monday, while restating China’s long-held position that Asean has no role to play when it comes to resolving the disputes themselves.
“China has never believed those multilateral forums are the appropriate place for discussing specific bilateral issues,” Mr. Wang said.
Mr. Najib disagreed on Tuesday, calling on the 10-country bloc to speak with a “united voice” on thorny regional challenges like territorial disputes.
‘We are still witnessing negative developments in the South China Sea, affecting the peace and stability we’ve been able to maintain for decades.’
—Asean Secretary-General Le Luong Minh
The recent establishment of an Asean-China hotline to help manage maritime emergencies was one encouraging sign of progress between the two sides, Mr. Minh told The Wall Street Journal.
“On the other hand…we have seen the continuation of very complicated and dangerous developments, especially the reclamation activities,” Mr. Minh said. The construction of at least seven artificial islands by China was “still going on,” he said, even while Beijing was talking to its Asean partners about the proposed code of conduct.
“We are still witnessing negative developments in the South China Sea, affecting the peace and stability we’ve been able to maintain for decades,” he said.
China could win back Southeast Asia’s trust by entering into “a new phase of consultations” that would swiftly produce a legally binding code of conduct, Mr. Minh said.
Mr. Najib had shown Beijing “it can’t impose its agenda on Asean,” said Richard Javad Heydarian of Manila’s De La Salle University. But despite this show of independence, he believed the 10-nation bloc would likely limit itself to light verbal censure this week to safeguard its valuable economic ties with Beijing.