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ASEAN ministers to express concern over actions in disputed South China Sea

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Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers will express concern over actions in the South China Sea that endanger the safety of people and renew their call for self-restraint to avoid escalating tensions in the disputed waters when they meet starting on Sunday in Laos.

A draft of their statement to be issued after their two-day meetings in the famous Luang Prabang region, a copy of which was obtained by GMA News Online, said the South China Sea disputes are among the urgent issues high in their agenda along with the Myanmar crisis, the Korean Peninsula, the war in Ukraine and the unfolding violence involving Israel and Hamas.

The ASEAN ministers largely repeats language they have used in past joint statements to express their alarm over the long-running territorial disputes, including a reaffirmation of their commitment to uphold international law, including the United Nations Charter and the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS.

They also underscored anew the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states “that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea.”

The draft statement still avoids mention of a series of alarming incidents between the Chinese and Philippine coast guards last year, but it now expresses concern how the territorial face-offs were putting the safety of people in peril.

“We discussed the situation in the South China Sea, during which concerns were expressed by some Ministers on the land reclamations, activities, serious incidents in the area, including actions that put the safety of all persons at risk, damage to the marine environment, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions, and may undermine peace, security, and stability in the region,” according to the draft statement, which is scheduled to be issued as a press statement by the Laotian chair in behalf of the ASEAN ministers on Monday.

Laos is this year’s chairman of the 10-country bloc, which also includes the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar.

The statement will be issued amid growing international concern over a series of tense confrontations and incidents last year between the Philippines and China in several highly contentious areas in the South China Sea, including the Second Thomas Shoal, which the Philippines calls Ayungin, and Scarborough Shoal, which Filipinos call Bajo de Masinloc.

China was not mentioned by name in the draft statement, including specific details of the most recent incidents in the contested waters as has been the practice in the past of the conservative ASEAN. The regional grouping relies heavily as a bloc and individually as state members on Beijing for trade and investment, tourism and infrastructure financing.

Such advocacy lines like promoting the peaceful resolution of disputes and upholding a rules-based order based on international law, including UNCLOS, have, however, been repeatedly used by the ASEAN and western nations led by the United States in their statements to refer to China and its increasingly assertive behavior in the disputed waters.

The incidents last year wherein the Chinese Coast Guard used military-grade lasers, water cannons and dangerous maneuvers against Philippine Coast Guard-escorted resupply boats, which had caused collisions, have alarmed Asian and Western countries, with most describing the escalating hostilities and tensions as “alarming.”

In a Jan. 17 meeting in Shanghai, the Philippines and China agreed to deescalate tensions in the South China Sea and vowed to improve existing maritime communication mechanisms to prevent incidents and any miscalculations in the disputed waters that could cause a much bigger conflict.

During the talks in Shanghai, Philippine Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Theresa Lazaro and Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Nong Rong “had frank and productive discussions to de-escalate the situation in the South China Sea and both sides agreed to calmly deal with incidents, if any, through diplomacy,” the Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

“They also agreed that continuous dialogue is important to keep peace and stability at sea,” the DFA said.

Both sides, the DFA added, explored the possibility of conducting marine scientific research between Filipino and Chinese scientists in an apparent confidence-building measure.

The meeting was deemed crucial following a series of incidents, including dangerous maneuvers by Chinese vessels and collisions, during routine resupply missions by the Philippines to its military outpost in Ayungin Shoal, also known by its international name Second Thomas Shoal.

World War II-era vessel BRP Sierra Madre  has been grounded at the shoal since 1999. The Philippines maintains a small navy personnel there to guard the territory, which is 105.77 nautical miles from the nearest Philippine province of Palawan and constitutes part of the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf as provided under a United Nations convention.

The Philippines decided in 1999 to deploy a permanent station on Ayungin Shoal in response to China’s illegal occupation of Panganiban Reef, also known as Mischief Reef, a Philippine territory, in 1995.

According to the DFA, both sides during the Shanghai meeting presented their respective positions on the Ayungin Shoal and “assured each other of their mutual commitment to avoid escalation of tensions.”

In their statement to be issued in Laos, the ASEAN foreign ministers will cite the importance of having freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea and express hope for an early conclusion of an “effective and substantive Code of Conduct” being negotiated by the regional bloc and China.

Recognizing the need “to maintain and strengthen stability in the maritime sphere in our region,” the ministers would also seek to increase “maritime cooperation and explore new initiatives” as reflected in the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Statement on Maintaining and Promoting Stability in the Maritime Sphere in Southeast Asia issued on December 30, 2023.

On the Myanmar crisis, the ASEAN ministers will reaffirm their commitment “to assisting Myanmar in finding a peaceful and durable solution to the ongoing crisis, as Myanmar remains an integral part of ASEAN.”

Veteran diplomat Aounkeo Kittikhoun was recently appointed as Special Envoy on Myanmar for this year and ASEAN ministers vowed to continue efforts to implement the bloc’s five-point consensus or peace plan for the strife-torn nation.

Southeast Asia has long been home to some of the world’s most rampant violators of human rights, including Myanmar, which is currently ruled by military generals, who staged a coup d’état and forcibly overthrew Ang San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government in February 2021.

Since then, Myanmar has descended into a civil strife that continues to alarm the international community.

The ASEAN regional bloc has disallowed Myanmar’s ruling military generals from attending its annual summits and foreign ministerial meetings due to the ruling military’s poor compliance with a five-point consensus that aims to ease the hostilities and violence across Myanmar and foster dialogue by contending groups, including the ruling generals and Suu Kyi’s party. —KG, GMA Integrated News

Read more, click here: GMA News

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