ASEAN expresses concern over deteriorating relations with China

By Beting Laygo Dolor, Editor

MANILA – It may have been steeped in diplomatic language, but the message could not be lost on anyone, except perhaps China.

The top foreign ministers/secretaries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over the weekend called on all parties to engage in peaceful dialogue over the South China Sea.

Tensions had been rising in recent months between China and several ASEAN members, notably the Philippines.

China has been taking progressively aggressive action in the South China against ships of ASEAN members. Besides Philippines vessels,  China has also been warding off sea craft from Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei through such actions as radio warnings and water cannon attacks. In worst cases, the China Coast Guard has even rammed Philippine ships sailing in the West Philippine Sea.

In a statement, the ministers said they were closely following with concern “the recent developments in the South China Sea that may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”

The ASEAN diplomats added that it was important to maintain the “freedom of navigation in and overflight above the maritime sphere of Southeast Asia, particularly the South China Sea.”

Last week, China sent a strong message that it would “not turn a blind eye” to continued incursions in Ayungin Shoal, which falls well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone but which Beijing considers as their territory.

The Philippine government had voiced plans of building a more permanent structure in the shoal to replace the MV Sierra Madre, a derelict World War ll-era warship that serves as the country’s outpost in the area.

It was previously believed that China was willing to work out some kind of compromise through the establishment of a Code of Conduct over the South China Sea. However, the negotiations have been slow, with China reportedly adamant about its claim of ownership over the area.

To recall, the Philippines had taken China to the International Court of Arbitration to determine who controlled the West Philippine Sea.

At the tailend of the Aquino administration, the Philippines won the case. Beijing, however, refused to abide or even recognize the decision and the situation for Manila worsened after the Duterte administration suddenly began to take China’s side.

Under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the country reversed Duterte’s tweak towards China, and resumed the previous strong relations with the US, with whom the Philippines has a mutual defense agreement.

China as taken exception with the move, and stated on several occasions that the Philippines had no cause to bring in an outside force in its discussions over the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea.

For its part, senior US diplomats including the likes of Vice President Kamala Harris have stated that the military treaty between the two countries was “iron clad.”

Marcos recently said it was time for a “paradigm shift” in facing China’s aggressive actions.

He agreed that relations with China were not in a good place at this time. Philippine senators had gone so far as to demand that China’s ambassador to Manila be sent back home and declared a persona non grata.

For his part, Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro said that nobody believes that propaganda statements coming out of Beijing except China itself.