Southeast Asian leaders are likely to avoid any official mention at a summit this week of an arbitration ruling that shot down China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, according to a draft of their final declaration, in a victory for Beijing’s diplomatic clout.
But the draft also expresses strongly stated concern about Beijing’s construction of man-made islands in the South China Sea, which Southeast Asian countries fear could destabilize the region.
The draft, obtained today by The Associated Press, is being fine-tuned by officials for the leaders to approve ahead of the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that begins on Tuesday in the Laotian capital.
The final version is to be released Thursday, but most major points including those concerning the South China Sea are expected to remain largely unchanged.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte also plans to ask China’s premier at a meeting between ASEAN and other regional leaders whether China is trying to develop another disputed reef, Scarborough Shoal, off his country’s northwestern coast, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.
Duterte said last week that the Philippine coast guard has sighted Chinese barges at Scarborough, which he said could presage the transformation of the Chinese-held reef into another man-made island.
One of the Chinese vessels had what appeared to be a crane, according to a Philippine official who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss classified intelligence.
Lorenzana said surveillance photos taken from boats were blurry so the government deployed a plane on Saturday which spotted 10 Chinese ships, including four coast guard vessels, four others that looked like barges and two vessels that could carry people. One of the vessels had drums and tubes.
“This is very worrisome because it’s ours,” Lorenzana told reporters in Vientiane. “If they succeed in building an island and construct (structures) there, we can’t take it back anymore.”
The Philippine government asked China’s ambassador in Manila about the sighting of the Chinese barges, but the envoy denied any island building was under way, Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay told the AP.
China sparked widespread alarm when it converted seven reefs in the Spratly Islands into islands that the United States says could be transformed into military bases to reinforce Beijing’s territorial claims and intimidate rival claimant countries.