New Chinese missile shelters and radar facilities have spotted on Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs in the West Philippine Sea, the part of the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines. File

ASEAN: Avoid raising tensions in West Philippine Sea
Audrey Morallo ( - October 23, 2017 - 11:47am

MANILA, Philippines — Defense ministers from Southeast Asian nations on Monday urged parties to the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) dispute to exercise "self-restraint" and avoid "actions" that will further escalate the tension in the region although they were mum on China's island-building activities and militarization of the issue.

Backed by its aggressive installation of military-grade facilities, Beijing's expansive claim over the seas through which around $5 billion worth of trade passes has jittered regional capitals, the West and its allies.

However, as a sign of the increasing influence of China over the bloc's nations, many of its governments are reluctant to pique the world's second largest economy by backing a strong ASEAN stance or by supporting even an oblique reference to its activities in the West Philippine Sea.

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According to the ministers, they reaffirm the importance of maintaining and promoting the peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and over-flight over the West Philippine Sea.

There is also a need to exercise "self-restraint" in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation in the region, according to the Southeast Asian ministers.

"[The defense ministers reaffirm the need to] pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)," the joint declaration said.

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The declaration however fell short of urging Beijing to stop its land reclamation activities in the West Philippine Sea which transformed islets into islands which now play host to structures, buildings, a battery of machine guns and an airport.

They also underscored the need to fully and effectively implement the Declaration of the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea.

In recent months, the bloc and Beijing have taken steps toward the formulation of the code after they agreed on the outline of the said document, formally known as the code's framework.

"[The defense ministers] emphasize the commitment of all parties to fully and effectively implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), ASEAN's Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea, and reiterating the importance of expeditiously working towards an early conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea," they said.

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In August, the release of the joint statement of the Southeast Asian foreign ministers was delayed by disagreements over how they would address the sea dispute before they eventually called for militarization to be avoided and expressing concern over the island-building.

The West Philippine Sea has been the most divisive issue for the ASEAN as some of its members have close economic ties with Beijing while others are direct parties to the dispute.

China claims around 90 percent of the disputed waters based on its so-called historical rights, but a United Nations tribunal issued a ruling last year invalidating this.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei meanwhile claim some of the areas and islands in the region.

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