Foreign ministers gathered in Nay Pyi Taw for the ASEAN Summit have reiterated their concerns over rising tensions in the South China Sea as new maritime disputes put the issue back in the spotlight ahead of the regional meeting.
While there had been concerns that some members, including chair Myanmar, may lean toward China on the issue, the ministers put on a united front on May 10 to express “serious concerns” regarding incidents over the past week.
In a joint statement, they urged all parties to “exercise self-restraint and avoid actions which could undermine peace and stability in the area, and to resolve disputes by peaceful means without resorting to threat or use of force”.
The statement featured stronger language than the one issued during the Foreign Ministers’ Retreat in Bagan in January and comes as confrontations between China and ASEAN members Vietnam and the Philippines have further strained already tense relations.
Vietnamese officials have accused Chinese ships of ramming Vietnamese vessels and spraying them with water cannon near the Paracel Islands. The islands are currently controlled by China, but are claimed by Vietnam.
A rig from the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation began drilling for oil near the islands last week. China claims that Vietnam is attempting to disrupt these activities.
On May 7, officials from the Philippines apprehended a Chinese fishing boat and its 11-member crew near the Spratly Islands. The Philippines have accused the fishermen of being in possession of hundreds of illegally caught turtles.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa called the South China Sea a “litmus test” for ASEAN and said the foreign ministers came to a consensus on the statement quickly and without hesitation.
“I think ASEAN will not be found wanting. We will continue to be united in our pursuit of [a] diplomatic solution,” said Mr Natalegawa, who added that the May 7 actions in the South China Sea were “totally disconnected from the diplomatic pathway”.
Nay Pyi Taw has been eager to use the chairship of ASEAN to showcase reforms initiated by President U Thein Sein’s government, after spending the better part of 17 years on the fringes of the regional bloc because of concerns over human rights abuses.
But the meeting of the 10-nation body – one of two summits scheduled for the year – has again been dominated by the ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Seas.
Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, told The Myanmar Times that the recent escalation in tensions “means that the [South China Sea] will overshadow this summit more than maybe any time since the 1990s”.
Leading up to Myanmar assuming the helm of ASEAN there had been concerns that its close ties to China could impact its handling of the South China Sea issue. In particular, some feared that Myanmar would follow a similar path to Cambodia when it held the chair in 2012.
That year Cambodia was seen as acting on behalf of Chinese interests in the region, and as a result one summit ended without a joint statement for the first time in decades.
“ASEAN states will be watching for any signs of Myanmar ‘doing a Cambodia’ and supporting clearly pro-Chinese positions on the [South China Sea] within ASEAN,” Mr Cook said.
Government spokesperson U Ye Htut, who is also deputy minister for information, spent much of the first day of the May 10-11 summit responding to questions about relations between Myanmar and China. He insisted that Myanmar continues to view China as a friend and that the relationship is not a hindrance to Myanmar’s ties with its ASEAN partners.