ASEAN leaders voice 'serious' concern over China's reclamation activities

By Vivian Ho and Puy Kea, Kyodo

Posted at Apr 28 2015 07:58 PM | Updated as of Apr 29 2015 03:58 AM

LANGKAWI, Malaysia -- Southeast Asian leaders on Tuesday expressed "serious concerns" over China's land reclamation activities in disputed areas of the South China Sea, which they said could undermine peace, security and stability in the region.

The stand was taken in the form of a "chairman's statement" released by Malaysia one day after it hosted an annual summit of leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

It is a moral boost to the campaign by the Philippines and Vietnam for the 10-member grouping to take a stronger stand against China for allegedly violating the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed by China and ASEAN in 2002.

"We share the serious concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamation being undertaken in the South China Sea, which has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea," the statement says.

"In this regard, we instructed our foreign ministers to urgently address this matter constructively including under the various ASEAN frameworks such as ASEAN-China relations as well as the principle of peaceful coexistence."

Those two paragraphs were not in an earlier draft of the chairman's statement that was seen by Kyodo News ahead of the summit, which opened in Kuala Lumpur on Monday and ended with a retreat in the northern island resort of Langkawi on the same day.

An ASEAN source told Kyodo that the South China Sea issue dominated discussions at the retreat as it was seen as "most challenging" to ASEAN, "in particular, how to manage relations with superpowers especially the U.S. and China."

The source said the Philippines and Vietnam pushed for tougher measures against China, while Malaysia took a "moderate" stand and Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar -- all of them nonclaimants -- remained silent.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, who chaired the meeting, faced the delicate task of ensuring that the South China Sea issue does not get too heated.

"There are frank exchanges of views and some concerns expressed, but ASEAN as a grouping of nations will continue to uphold the principles that we have enunciated," Najib said in a press conference Tuesday.

Those principles, he said, are that disputes be settled in an "amicable and negotiated manner," that all parties abide by the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and "not do anything to increase tension" and that they fully adhere to the 2002 declaration and speed up talks on a regional code of conduct.

The envisaged code would be a legally binding document used to resolve deadlocks, disputes and tensions that may arise from time to time, as opposed to the declaration, which is merely a set of nonbinding principles.

Although Malaysia is among the claimant states in the South China Sea, it has thus far preferred quiet diplomacy in dealing with the disputes as seeks to strike a balance between protecting its interests and preserving its relationship with China, a major trading partner.

This is in contrast to the Philippines and Vietnam, which have publicly called out China over what they claim to be its encroachment into their territory in the South China Sea, including the hotly contested Spratly Islands.

Najib dismissed talk of the issue having split ASEAN.

"We may differ slightly in our approach but we are all on the same page when it comes to the main principle on how we deal with South China Sea," he said.

Besides Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, fellow ASEAN member Brunei also claims a piece of the Spratlys.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.