Diplomats and experts warned Wednesday of a heightened risk of armed conflict in disputed waters in the South China Sea due to a lack of cohesion among members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
China has ignored a recent ruling by a UN-backed arbitration court finding in favor of the Philippines, and has claimed a recent victory when Asean foreign ministers failed to include a mention of the row in a joint communique issued at a recent meeting in Laos.
“The risk of conflict is increasing in the South China Sea due to a lack of a unified position of Asean,” Prof. Michael Heazle of Griffith University in Australia said at the Second Manila Conference on the South China Sea, held at the Manila Hotel.
He said the lack of a “unified” Asean position “is allowing major powers to come into play” such as the United States, which has steadfastly called on China to follow the ruling.
He said that unity in Asean in the political front was needed “to keep the situation from escalating into greater tension between the great powers.”
Lack of a unified Asean stand creates a more dangerous situation “because that means that external powers to the dispute such as the United States and potentially its allies will become more directly involved,” Heazle told reporters in the sidelines of the forum.
Sumathy Permal, a senior researcher at the Center for Maritime Security and Diplomacy in the Maritime Institute of Malaysia, warned failure by the regional bloc to come up with a unified stand would create scenarios allowing China to increase its military presence in the waters.
Among others, Permal said, China could declare an Air Defense Identification Zone covering the air space above the sea region, push through with building nuclear plants in the area and continue to hold military exercises in the disputed waters.
During a recent Asean meeting in Vientiane, Laos, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. said he had pushed but failed to convince Asean to include the arbitration ruling in the joint communiqué.
In 2012, the bloc failed to issue a final joint communiqué due to a divided stand on the sea disputes. Four of the 10 members—Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei—are claimants to the sea, while other members such as Cambodia are seen as favoring China.
Meanwhile, Foreign Department spokesperson Charles Jose advised Filipino fishermen on Wednesday to steer clear of Scarborough Shoal—a rich traditional fishing ground off Luzon island—to avoid harassment from Chinese authorities.
Beijing early this week announced penalties for “illegal” fishing in its waters, including the disputed areas, despite the arbitration ruling.
“We are aware that China is occupying Scarborough Shoal, so let us wait for clarity on how our fishermen can return there without being subjected to harassment anymore,” Jose told reporters.
Jose said that while the tribunal ruling was clear, the “reality on the ground” was different.
“The reality is that China is there so we must discuss this,” he said.
Asked if this meant Filipino fishermen should avoid the shoal for now, Jose said: “This is for the safety of everyone.”
Manila’s position is likely to anger critics of President Rodrigo Duterte’s new government, which has been accused of taking a soft line with Beijing.
The question of who has the right to fish in the disputed South China Sea has been a major bone of contention between Beijing and Manila, which brought the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
Manila lodged the case under its previous government in 2013, saying that after 17 years of negotiations with Beijing it had exhausted all political and diplomatic avenues to settle the dispute.
Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims to the sea, through which over $5 trillion in annual trade passes.
In 2012, China took control of the Scarborough Shoal, 230 kilometers (143 miles) from Luzon after a stand-off with the country’s navy.
It has since driven away Filipino fishermen attempting to fish in the area, sometimes using water cannons. With a report from AFP