SINGAPORE - China has warned the Association of Southeast Asian Nations not to issue any statement on the Philippines-initiated arbitration at The Hague on a dispute between Manila and Beijing in the South China Sea -- a move apparently aimed at preventing ASEAN from backing any judgment in favor of the Philippines, ASEAN diplomatic sources said Tuesday.
China's Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin made the comment at a regular meeting between Chinese and ASEAN officials in Singapore last week to discuss the territorial disputes in the sea, which he co-chaired with Singapore's Foreign Ministry Permanent Secretary Chee Wee Kiong.
China says PH arbitration 'tainted'
Liu told ASEAN officials during the meeting that it would be a "risky move" for ASEAN to issue any statement on the case and China would "object" to it, the sources said.
The Philippines unilaterally initiated the arbitration against China in 2013 to help resolve maritime disputes in the South China Sea. The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague is expected to make a final decision on the case in the next few months.
Liu reiterated that China's position is not to accept the arbitration, which it regards as a move against China by outside powers -- a reference to the United States and Japan. Any relation with outside powers should not be at the cost of ASEAN-China ties, he said.
Three other ASEAN members -- Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei -- are also claimants in the South China Sea dispute.
"The main thing China wants from this SOM is a lack of ASEAN consensus on an ASEAN statement on the outcome of the arbitration tribunal in The Hague," explained an ASEAN diplomat. SOM refers to last week's "senior officials meeting" between Chinese and ASEAN officials in Singapore.
At the meeting, Liu also assured ASEAN that China's construction activities in the Nansha or Spratly Islands in the South China Sea is not for military purposes, but rather for civilian use, including combating piracy and to help ships navigate, the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
While warning ASEAN against issuing any statement on the arbitration, the Chinese delegation however circulated a joint statement at the meeting, which Beijing had drafted in the hope that the foreign ministers of China and ASEAN can issue it at an upcoming meeting to be held in July in Vientiane, Laos, on the sideline of the annual meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers and related meetings.
The draft statement emphasizes the importance of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which ASEAN and China signed in 2002, followed up in 2011 with the adoption of guidelines to implement the declaration.
At a news conference after that meeting, Liu emphasized the importance of the declaration and the resolution of the dispute by negotiation, as opposed to arbitration.
He defended China's recent four-point consensus with three ASEAN countries on the South China Sea territorial dispute, which has attracted criticism from some ASEAN officials as an attempt to split the 10-member regional bloc on the issue.
According to a posting on China's Foreign Ministry website last month, Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently reached the four-point consensus with the governments of Brunei, Cambodia and Laos on how to approach the South China Sea issue. The consensus claims the disputes are not an issue between China and ASEAN as a whole, and they should only be resolved through dialogue and consultation by parties directly concerned.
As a result of the four-point consensus that China said it has already agreed on with the three ASEAN countries, "the other ASEAN countries would not (be able to) take a decisive stand...there will be no consensus for ASEAN to go forward on South China Sea issues," said the ASEAN diplomat.
Since 2013 ASEAN has also been actively engaging China in consultations on a code of conduct on the South China Sea.
However, ASEAN officials have lamented the lack of progress in both the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and the Code of Conduct, with both side still having divergent views. "The Chinese side is playing for time and just hoping ASEAN will implode on the South China Sea," the diplomat said.
The 10 ASEAN members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.