The United States issued a warning to Asian regional powers that it would not tolerate any attempts to impose restrictions on freedom of movement in the South China Sea.

Asian neighbors met at a regional summit to discuss how far they would push in their opposition to China’s island building program in the South China Sea, writes Nicolas Revise for AFP. The sea is subject to territorial claims from a number of countries, but Beijing is aggressively asserting its own claims by reclaiming land and building military outposts.

U.S. Will Not Tolerate Navigation Restrictions In South China Sea
Source: Pixabay

ASEAN summit addresses South China Sea

US Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is an “intrinsic right.”

“Let me be clear: The United States will not accept restrictions on freedom of navigation and overflight, or other lawful uses of the sea,” he told the press after the summit in Kuala Lumpur.

Despite a regional pledge against provocative actions in the strategically important waterway, China has undertaken a huge land reclamation program involving hundreds of ships. Tensions have been rising for years as Beijing becomes increasingly aggressive, and the issue dominated the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Malaysia.

Strategic waterway a huge concern for regional powers

The 10-nation grouping met in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, and the summit was attended by envoys from a dozen or so non-members including China, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. Beijing lays claims to almost all of the South China Sea, which covers rich fishing grounds and potentially huge reserves of oil and gas.

ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have various claims to parts of the sea. Many of them overlap with other claims such as those of Taiwan.

The issue was a hot topic at the annual meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers this Tuesday. Each year the bloc releases a joint communique detailing the results of the meeting, and members take great pride in maintaining consensus diplomacy.

That consensus has been threatened during the latest meeting as officials argue about the language which should be used when addressing the issue of the South China Sea. AFP cites diplomatic sources who said that the Philippines and Vietnam were pressing for the use of stronger language related to China’s island building, which they fear could strengthen Beijing’s territorial claims.

China exploiting differences within group

However China has several traditional allies within the grouping, which pushed back against the use of stronger language. “China’s friends are taking a hard stance,” said one diplomat familiar with the drafting.

Although AFP states the diplomat did not specify which countries opposed the Philippines and Vietnam, China is traditionally supported by Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar within ASEAN.

Disagreements have raised fears that a joint statement may not be issued. In the four-decade history of ASEAN, the 2012 Cambodia summit was the only other time that a statement could not be agreed on.

Diplomats from other member nations accused Cambodia of causing problems by refusing to allow criticism of China over its policy in the South China Sea.

“China has already figured out how ASEAN works on the South China Sea, it knows how to divide us. Look at what happened in Cambodia,” one diplomat at the talks in Kuala Lumpur told AFP.

Lack of trust in Beijing evident at summit

Work on the joint statement continued on Thursday, despite the fact that it was supposed to have been finished on Wednesday.  “It has not been finalised as of now. There are difficulties,” said Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam. “The paragraphs relating to the South China Sea are causing some problems,” he added.

AFP has already seen a draft of the communique, which does not make any mention of ending land reclamation programs. It says that recent actions “have the very potential of undermining peace, security and stability.” Diplomats hope to release the joint statement by the end of the day.

Both the U.S. and its regional allies have pressed China to end island building and construction work. Officials in Beijing had previously refused to do so, claiming that it was within their rights. However this Wednesday Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi claimed that the land reclamation program program had “already stopped.”

Some delegates do not believe that China is being entirely truthful. “They’re not saying they’re stopping construction, nor are they saying they’ll stop future reclamation,” one diplomat told the press.

“The Chinese have indicated that they have stopped. I hope it is true. I don’t know yet,” said John Kerry.