US, allies blast China

President Rodrigo Duterte (right) shakes hands with visiting US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson prior to their meeting at Malacañang Monday, on the sidelines of the 50th Asean regional security forum, an annual get-together among top diplomats from 26 countries and the European Union for talks on political and security issues in Asia Pacific.

MANILA — The United States, Australia and Japan on Monday denounced Beijing’s island-building and militarization of the South China Sea, in contrast to the increasingly tepid response from Southeast Asian nations over the festering issue.

China claims nearly all of the sea, through which $5 trillion in annual shipping trade passes and which is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits.

Its sweeping claims overlap with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei—all members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc—as well as Taiwan.

But in recent years Beijing has managed to weaken regional resistance by courting some Asean members.

On Sunday, Beijing scored a coup when Asean ministers issued a diluted statement on the dispute and agreed to Beijing’s terms on talks during a security forum which the bloc is hosting in Manila.

China insists that a much-delayed code of conduct between it and Asean members over the disputed sea must not be legally binding, a demand to which Southeast Asian countries have so far acquiesced. 

But in a joint statement after their foreign ministers met on the sidelines of the same gathering, the US, Japan and Australia delivered a noticeably sterner rebuke to Beijing.

The three nations also called on China and the Philippines to respect last year’s international arbitration ruling, which dismissed much of Beijing’s claim in the sea.

The Philippines had been one of the most vocal critics of China and filed a case before a UN-backed tribunal. 

But after the election of President Rodrigo Duterte last year, Manila has played down the tribunal’s verdict in its favor and instead pursued warmer ties with Beijing, a move that led to offers of billions of dollars in investments or aid from China. 

Critics of China have accused it of assiduously dividing Asean, which operates on a consensus basis, with strong-arm tactics and checkbook diplomacy, enticing smaller countries in the bloc such as Cambodia and Laos to support it.

Vietnam, which had been pushing for stronger language in Manila, has been largely left to fend for itself since Duterte’s China rapprochement.

The US, Australia and Japan oppose Beijing building giant artificial islands that could be used as military bases, fearing it will eventually establish de facto control over the waters.

China insists the three countries should stay out of what it says are purely bilateral disputes with its neighbors.

On Sunday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned any interference from “outside parties” could jeopardize negotiations over the code of conduct. 

Foreign Ministers Julie Bishop of Australia, Taro Kono of Japan and US State Secretary Rex Tillerson on Monday issued a joint statement calling on China and the Philippines to abide by the Arbitral Tribunal’s decision, saying it was “final and legally binding on both parties.”

But China has refused to recognize the tribunal’s authority and did not participate in its proceedings.

Reacting to their statement, Foreign Affairs spokesman Robespierre Bolivar reiterated President Duterte’s position.

“Let me put this way, the President has stated on many occasions that the Philippines will respect the arbitral ruling and will raise it with relevant parties in proper time,” Bolivar said.

On Sunday night, the Asean foreign ministers mentioned militarization in the South China Sea in a joint communique.

But the South China Sea has been a divisive issue for the 10-member bloc with the Philippines, this year’s host country, veering away from confrontation with Beijing, leaving Vietnam alone to assert its territorial rights in the disputed waters.

On Saturday, Asean failed to issue the customary joint statement due to the disagreement about whether to make oblique references to China’s rapid expansion of its defense capabilities on artificial islands in disputed waters.

By Sunday, a draft communique had been watered down in a way to avoid angering China. 

The release of the statement came shortly after the ministers met with Wang and agreed on a framework for conducting negotiations on the decades-long row that included key clauses advocated by China. 

“This is an important outcome of our joint effort,” Wang told reporters as he celebrated the agreement.

China has dramatically expanded its presence in the contested areas in recent years by building giant artificial islands that could be used as military bases, raising concerns it will eventually establish de facto control over the waters.

In what two diplomats involved said was another victory for Beijing on Sunday, Asean members declined to say in their joint statement that the hoped-for code of conduct with China be “legally binding.”

Vietnam, the most determined critic of China on the issue, had insisted during two days of negotiations that Asean insist the code be legally binding, arguing otherwise it would be meaningless. 

The Asean ministers failed to release the joint statement as expected after meeting on Saturday because of their differences on the sea issue, with Vietnam pushing for tougher language and Cambodia lobbying hard for China.

“Vietnam is adamant, and China is effectively using Cambodia to champion its interests,” one diplomat said on Sunday as negotiations extended into overtime.