Territorial disputes in the South China Sea dominated the meetings of the East Asia Summit (EAS) as well as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) at the 47th ASEAN Foreign Ministers meetings in Nay Pyi Taw on Sunday. Several ASEAN nations including Brunei, Vietnam and Philippines raised the issue at both the EAS and ARF meetings.
The talks were overshadowed by the maritime tensions with growing international alarm over China’s activities in the region. Despite support from Cambodia and Thailand, China remained isolated at the ASEAN meet with the countries demanding that the matter be resolved peacefully. Demands of the Philippines and Vietnam received impetus after the US made a strong stand for a freeze on all activities in South China Seas. US Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated that there be a freeze on activities till the matter is resolved and an adherence to international law and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. China had on Saturday rejected a Philippines proposal to freeze activity in the area.
At the ASEAN meet, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi countered the allegations of use of force saying China’s position of safeguarding its sovereignty and maritime rights were “firm and unshakeable.’’ China has said that the disputes with countries claiming rights over the South China Sea will be resolved bilaterally.
In a bilateral meeting with John Kerry, Wang Yi said freedom of navigation in the South China Sea waters was “out of the question.’’
In her statement at the EAS meeting, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said that maritime territorial disputes have the potential to undermine comprehensive security. “India opposes the use of threat and use of force and supports freedom of navigation and access to resources in accordance with the principles of international law,’’ Swaraj said. Taking a strong stand on the matter, she said the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the adoption of a Code of Conduct needs to be followed by ASEAN and China.
Wang Yi, meanwhile, said the issue had been “sensationalised’’ by countries with vested interests. The Chinese foreign minister said China is willing to listen to “well-intentioned’’ suggestions from all parties but not those that “create new trouble or dissension, or even serve ulterior purposes’’.
Tensions in the South China Sea had flared up earlier this year after China positioned an oil rig in the waters also claimed by Vietnam leading to anti-China riots in Vietnam. Disputes have been ongoing in the South China Sea for the past decade between seven countries including China, Brunei, Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and Malaysia. The bone of contention has been the control of shipping lanes, fishing areas and prospects in large natural resource reserves like crude oil and natural gas.
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