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Vietnam wants tough stand vs China, but Philippines reluctant

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano talks with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh during the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting-Plenary Session at the PICC in Pasay City yesterday.

Vietnam wants tough stand vs China, but Philippines reluctant

(The Philippine Star) - August 5, 2017 - 4:00pm

MANILA, Philippines - Vietnam is urging other Southeast Asian nations to take a stronger stand against Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, as a tense regional security forum in Manila began yesterday with North Korea also under fire over its nuclear program.

Ahead of the launch of the annual gathering of foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Vietnam made a bold play against China with a draft of suggested changes to a planned joint communiqué.

It set the stage for what was expected to be a fiery few days of diplomacy in Manila, with the top diplomats from China, the US, Russia and North Korea set to join their ASEAN and other Asia-Pacific counterparts for security talks starting today.

The meetings would take place as the UN Security Council votes this weekend on a US-drafted resolution to toughen sanctions against North Korea to punish the isolated regime for its missile and nuclear tests.

The US said it would also seek to build united pressure on North Korea at the Manila event – known as the ASEAN Regional Forum – and Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said Pyongyang would receive a strong message.

But on the South China Sea dispute – one of Asia’s other top powder keg issues – there was far less consensus, with Vietnam resisting efforts by the Philippines to placate Beijing, according to diplomats.

Vietnam on Friday night sought to insert tough language against China in an ASEAN statement scheduled for release after the Southeast Asian ministers wrapped up their own talks yesterday.

According to a copy of a draft obtained by AFP, Vietnam lobbied for ASEAN to express serious concern over “construction” in the sea, in reference to China’s explosion of artificial island building in the disputed waters in recent years.

Vietnam also wanted ASEAN to insist in the statement that a planned code of conduct with China on the South China Sea be “legally binding,” which Beijing opposes.

The lobbying occurred when the ASEAN foreign ministers held unscheduled and informal talks late on Friday night.

“The discussions were really hard. Vietnam is on its own to have stronger language on the South China Sea. Cambodia and Philippines are not keen to reflect that,” one diplomat involved in the talks told AFP.

“The ministers endorsed the framework of the Code of Conduct for eventual adoption at the ASEAN-China Ministerial Meeting,” Foreign Affairs spokesman Robespierre Bolivar said in a press briefing.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is set to attend the meeting in Manila.

But Bolivar could not immediately say if there was a discussion of the framework of the COC by the ministers during their retreat yesterday or whether the discussion went smoothly.

China claims nearly all of the strategically vital sea, including waters approaching the coasts of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. It has in recent years expanded its presence in the sea by building artificial islands, which are capable of holding military bases.

Vietnam takes lead

Alongside Vietnam, the Philippines used to be the most vocal critic of Beijing’s expansionism.

But under President Duterte, Manila has sought to downplay the dispute with China in return for billions of dollars in Chinese investments and aid.

China has in recent years also successfully lobbied other ASEAN nations, particularly Cambodia and Laos, to support its diplomatic maneuvering in the dispute.

At the ASEAN opening ceremony yesterday morning, Cayetano confirmed there had been strong debates on Friday.

“You have to excuse my voice as my colleagues, we kept each other up until almost midnight last night. In the true ASEAN way we were able to passionately argue our national interests,” Cayetano said.

Various diplomats said that Vietnam was likely to lose its battle to insert the strong language against China, with the Philippines as host of the talks wielding greater influence.

But security analysts point out that the framework comes 15 years after negotiations on the issue first began, and China has used that time to cement its claims with the artificial islands.

The framework aims to “establish a rules-based framework containing a set of norms” to ensure closer cooperation among parties to avoid disputes.

It also calls for a creation of “a favorable environment for the peaceful settlement of the disputes; to ensure maritime security and safety and freedom of navigation and overflight.”

Bolivar explained that the framework could help structure the discussions and negotiations for a Code of Conduct (COC).

“When the negotiation starts then that’s where you see countries putting in the more substantive aspects of the Code. So it’s entirely possible that that issue will be discussed, will be negotiated upon as the code is being negotiated,” he said.

He said Cayetano had articulated the country’s position that a COC be a legally binding instrument.

“The Secretary has mentioned that the Philippines’ preference is for a legally binding (COC),” he added.

ASEAN and China finalized the framework for the COC in the South China Sea and endorsed by senior officials at the meeting in Guiyang, China in May.

In 2002, ASEAN and China committed to a non-binding Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) to guide claimants in their actions in the South China Sea. To prevent or reduce tensions, countries with competing maritime claims have committed to observe self-restraint.

Earlier, the US State Department said dropping the South China Sea issue from the ASEAN agenda would be unacceptable to the United States.

Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said on Thursday that the South China Sea should be a focus of the discussions at the security meet.

Another pressing issue in Manila will be the growing terrorism threat in the region.

The event is taking place as security forces battle Islamic State-aligned gunmen who have since May been occupying parts of Marawi, the nation’s only Islamic city.  – Pia Lee-Brago, AFP

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