MANILA - Southeast Asian countries are reluctant to challenge China and appear relatively “mute” and “impotent” in the face of Beijing’s stationing of a $1-billion oil exploration rig in the disputed South China Sea and the deadly anti-China protest in Vietnam, according to a senior fellow of the US think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Murray Hiebert, deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the CSIS in Washington, cited the reclamation of Mabini (Johnson South) Reef that was raised by President Aquino with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Myanmar last week.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung of Vietnam had also warned his ASEAN colleagues at the meeting about China’s extremely dangerous action.
Aquino raised with the ASEAN leaders indications that China was reclaiming land around Mabini Reef, possibly to build an airstrip.
Prior to the ASEAN summit, Philippine authorities seized a Chinese fishing boat and its crew in Hasa-Hasa (Half Moon) Shoal, an area close to mainland Palawan, for poaching protected sea turtles.
Myanmar, current chairman of the ASEAN, released a statement on May 11 expressing “serious concerns over ongoing developments in the South China Sea.” The statement said the leaders had called for restraint and peaceful resolution of the dispute, but without mentioning China.
He said ASEAN foreign ministers issued a rare stand-alone statement expressing “serious concerns” about developments in the sea and calling for quicker action in negotiating a Code of Conduct between China and the regional grouping.
“Vietnam and the Philippines undoubtedly hoped for stronger support from their neighbors, two of which – Malaysia and Brunei – have their own overlapping claims with China in the South China Sea, which serves as a major international shipping route, has rich fishing grounds and is believed to hold deposits of oil and gas,” Hiebert said in his commentary “China’s Push in the South China Sea Divides the Region” originally published by YaleGlobal Online.
In 2012, the 10-nation bloc for the first time in its 45-year history failed to issue a joint communiqué at the end of the summit in Cambodia because Phnom Penh refused to include any reference to a discussion of the sea disputes.
China’s close ally, Cambodia, which was ASEAN chair, opposed any mention of the Philippines’ Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal at all in the joint statement and announced that a joint communique “cannot be issued.”