Southeast Asian Nations Urge Restraint on South China Sea

May 12, 2014 4:17 am ET

(Updates with China comment in 12th paragraph.)

May 12 (Bloomberg) -- Southeast Asian nations called for self-restraint on territorial disputes in the South China Sea as tensions escalate over China’s pursuit of its claims to large swaths of the resource-rich region.

Leaders called on all parties to “refrain from taking actions that would further escalate tension,” in a statement issued at the end of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting yesterday in Naypyidaw in Myanmar. They called for progress on a code of conduct that would seek to preserve freedom of navigation in the area, through which some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes run.

Disputes are mounting as Asian neighbors push back against Chinese moves to assert control over the maritime areas. Its placement of an oil rig near the disputed Paracel Islands led last week to clashes between Vietnamese and Chinese boats, while the Philippines detained 11 Chinese fisherman in a contested area. Vietnamese protested in several cities yesterday against China’s actions.

The escalation risks spilling over to separate territorial disputes between Japan and China in the East China Sea. Russia has recently stepped up air patrols around parts of North Asia, adding to the pressure.

“Japan will surely take advantage of the South China Sea tensions to advocate its ‘China Threat Theory’,” according to Liu Jiangyong, a professor at the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “Japan will likely support or aid Vietnam and the Philippines in challenging China and make the situation even worse,” Liu said by phone.

China’s actions come after President Barack Obama’s visit last month to Asia to reassure allies of the U.S. commitment to its strategic rebalance to the region. Still, Obama said the U.S. was not seeking to contain or control China and, speaking in Manila, he said the focus of U.S. foreign policy had shifted from deploying combat troops to “avoiding errors.”

‘How Far’

“I’m sure some in China are keen to see how far they can go,” said Mark Beeson, professor of international politics at Murdoch University in Perth. “The big question is whether this is a coordinated, top-down policy approved by Xi Jinping,” or “whether there’s quite a bit of ad hoc policy freelancing by the PLA and provincial governments,” he said, a reference to the People’s Liberation Army.

President Xi is expanding China’s naval reach to back its claims to the South China Sea that are based on the “nine-dash line” map, first published in 1947. That map extends hundreds of miles south from China’s Hainan Island to equatorial waters off the coast of Borneo. China and Vietnam both claim the Paracel Islands, and Asean members Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines have claims to other areas.

Stocks Fall

Vietnamese stocks fell 4.9 percent as of 2:17 p.m. local time, after dropping as much as 5.6 percent to the lowest level in four months. The benchmark VN Index slid 5.9 percent on May 8, the most since 2001, before rising 2.9 percent on May 9.

Asean has shown “serious concern” about events in the South China Sea, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters today in Tokyo. “We are seriously concerned about China’s one-sided exploration actions raising tensions in an area where borders are unclear.”

Still, a statement from Asean foreign ministers touching on the disputes without mentioning China directly is not a major achievement for the grouping, according to Beeson. “There’s clearly some reluctance on the part of some members to do anything to upset China and very little real solidarity or common purpose beyond face saving,” he said by e-mail.

Limiting Traffic

The South China Sea is “not a problem” between China and Asean, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters today in Beijing. China and Vietnam are in talks on the rig dispute, she said.

“The Vietnamese attempt to pull other countries in to pressure China is doomed to fail,” Hua said. “The Vietnamese side must stop its disruption of China’s working vessels.”

China will limit traffic in some areas of the waters because of some unspecified activities, according to a statement posted on the website of the China Maritime Safety Administration on May 10.

Southeast Asian foreign ministers met on May 10 and said afterward in a statement that South China Sea claimants should “avoid actions which could undermine peace and stability in the area.”

Asean is seeking a code of conduct for the waters, with talks making little progress since China agreed in July to start discussions, and China introducing fishing rules in January requiring foreign vessels to seek permission before entering waters off its southern coast.

Asean Neutrality

“Asean needs to be neutral, but Asean cannot stay silent,” Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam told reporters. “There should be no mishaps. Mishaps can easily get out of hand. And tensions, mishaps, incidents, if they result in the disputes becoming larger, it’s bad for all of us.”

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung called on Asean members to support it over the territorial dispute.

“Vietnam has practiced restraint, showed goodwill and used all dialogue channels with China at different levels to protest and demand China remove the oil rig and military ships from Vietnam’s waters,” he said in a speech at the summit. Vietnam “will resolutely protect its national sovereignty and legitimate interests.”

Affecting Trust

Asean’s statements on the disputes could affect China’s trust in the group, according to Xu Liping, senior fellow at the National Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

“China always rejects internationalization and Asean- lization of the South China Sea disputes,” Xu said by e-mail. “The prerequisite of making a code of conduct is mutual trust. Without mutual trust, there is not any cooperation.”

Vietnam on May 7 said Chinese boats rammed its vessels, fired water cannons and used low-flying aircraft in a confrontation over the oil rig. China the next day accused Vietnamese ships of provoking the clash by crashing into its boats.

About 1,000 people marched in Ho Chi Minh City yesterday while hundreds gathered in a public square in front of the Chinese embassy in the capital city of Hanoi.

Philippine prosecutors sued 9 of the 11 Chinese fisherman before a court in Palawan province for poaching and taking threatened or endangered species, according to provincial prosecutor Allen Ross Rodriguez. The other two are minors and will be repatriated, he said today by phone.

--With assistance from Joel Guinto and Norman P. Aquino in Manila, Jason Folkmanis in Ho Chi Minh City, John Boudreau, K. Oanh Ha and Nguyen Kieu Giang in Hanoi, Vinicy Chan in Hong Kong, Isabel Reynolds and Takashi Hirokawa in Tokyo and Ludi Wang and Henry Sanderson in Beijing.