Tensions over South China Sea belie summit cordiality

Manuel Mogato and Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Reuters

Posted at Sep 07 2016 11:17 PM

Photo courtesy of the Department of National Defense

VIENTIANE - The Philippines said on Wednesday it was "gravely concerned" that Chinese boats were preparing to build structures at a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, shattering an appearance of cordiality at an Asian summit in Laos.

Officials said talks between Southeast Asian leaders and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang went smoothly and there was no tension over a recent ruling by an arbitration court in The Hague that invalidated China's claims to the waterway.

But, hours before the meeting, the Philippines' defense ministry released photographs and a map showing what it said was an increased number of Chinese vessels near Scarborough Shoal, which China seized after a standoff in 2012.

The ministry's spokesman told reporters in Manila the pictures were made public because China's ambassador to the Philippines had denied there was any new activity there.

"We believed that this is precursor to possible building of structures on the shoal," spokesman Arsenio Andolong said, adding that China's denial was "even more disturbing".

China said there had been no change to the situation around the shoal and it had not taken any new action there.

"Given this situation, some people are hyping the situation by spreading that kind of information," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily briefing in Beijing.

China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei claim parts or all of the resource-rich South China Sea, making it a hot spot of regional tension. The last four are members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

China has over the past year alarmed other claimants, and outside powers such as the United States and Japan, by re-claiming land on several disputed reefs through dredging, and building air fields and port facilities.

A Philippines official said the release of the pictures and a map showing the ships' positions was ordered by the defense minister, who was at the ASEAN summit in Vientiane, Laos.

But there was no row over the issue at the summit.

"It seems that every country played down the level of conflict, therefore the tone of the meeting was quite friendly and emphasized peace and security within the region," said Major General Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, a Thai government spokesman.

The Philippine concern about the shoal comes after a dispute with the United States, its main ally.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte criticized U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday, prompting the cancellation of a meeting between them in Laos.

China has repeatedly blamed the United States for stirring up trouble in the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which more than $5 trillion of trade moves annually.

The United States says it has no position on the territorial disputes but wants to ensure freedom of navigation.

With that in mind, it has conducted patrols close to Chinese-held islands, to Beijing's anger, while China has been bolstering its military presence in the sea.

A FEW ROCKS

Although the Scarborough Shoal is merely a few rocks poking above the sea, it is important to the Philippines because of the fish stocks in the area. Manila says China's blockade of the shoal is a violation of international law.

The dispute has become more significant since the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in July that no country had sovereign rights over activity at Scarborough Shoal, a traditional fishing ground for Chinese, Filipino and Vietnamese. China has refused to recognize the ruling by the court in The Hague.

Duterte wants China to abide by the ruling but he had pledged not to raise the issue during the meeting in Laos.

Instead, he wants to smooth the way for bilateral negotiations and last month sent former President Fidel Ramos as his special envoy to meet Chinese representatives in Hong Kong.

A senior Chinese official said Beijing was confident it could return to a healthy relationship with the Philippines.

"In the past 30 years, the relationship has been very smooth, it's only in the past few years, because of some problems known to all, the relationship has been affected," vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin said at the Laos summit.

A draft ASEAN communique seen by Reuters on Monday listed eight points related to the South China Sea, but made no mention of the arbitration ruling.

The bloc traditionally shies away from taking a position on thorny diplomatic issues, especially where China is concerned, because of its influence in the region.

Still, a Philippine security official traveling with Duterte said it was a challenge for the government to explain to fishermen why they could not return to the Scarborough Shoal area when The Hague had ruled it was a fishing ground for all.

"We won in the arbitral court, but we could not enforce it, how can we explain that to our own fishermen?" said the official, who declined to be identified.

"So, we wanted to talk to China and resolve the issue, but the situation like this is making it more difficult. The president is asking what is China's intentions in the area?"