Vietnam and the Philippines pushed for stronger action to confront China’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea at a South-east Asian summit yesterday that was hosted for the first time by Burma.
A showdown between Chinese and Vietnamese ships near the Paracel Islands has put a spotlight on long-standing and bitter maritime disputes. The stakes are high, with Beijing claiming sovereignty over much of the strategically important waters – among the world’s busiest transport lanes and believed to contain significant oil and gas reserves.
Several members of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) reject China’s claims, saying parts of the sea are theirs. However, few are willing to risk their economic and political ties with the regional powerhouse.
A statement released by South-east Asian leaders at the close of yesterday’s meeting expressed concern and called for restraint by all parties involved in the maritime disputes, but made no direct mention of China. Vietnam and the Philippines made it clear from the start that they wanted more.
“China has brazenly moved its deep-water drilling rig escorted by over 80 armed and military vessels and many airplanes to the Vietnamese waters,” Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Tan Dzung said. The vessels “fired high-powered water cannons and rammed straight into the Vietnamese public-service and civil ships, causing damage to many ships and injuring many people on board”.
The stand-off between China and Vietnam started on 1 May, when China moved a deep sea oil rig into waters near the Paracel Islands in what most analysts believe was an especially assertive move to help cement its claims of sovereignty over the area. Vietnam, which says the islands belong to it, immediately dispatched ships.
China insists it is doing nothing wrong and said on Thursday that it had “maintained a lot of restraint” in the face of “intensive provocations” by Vietnam that were endangering its personnel and property.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded by saying that the issue should not concern Asean and that Beijing was opposed to “one or two countries’ attempts to use the South Sea issue to harm the overall friendship and co-operation between China and Asean”.
Philippine president Benigno Aquino III, meanwhile, said he intended to raise his country’s own territorial dispute with Beijing at the summit, while calling for support to resolve the conflict through international arbitration.
Asean leaders also discussed tensions on the Korean peninsula, reiterating their commitment to a region “free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction”, according to a draft of the final statement.
Asean comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.