VIENTIANE, Laos — President Barack Obama put the long-simmering dispute in the South China Sea front and center on the agenda at a regional summit Thursday as it became clear that most of the other leaders gathered in the Laotian capital were going to let China off with a mild rebuke over its territorial expansion in the resource-rich waters.
“We will continue to work to ensure that disputes are resolved peacefully including in the South China Sea,” Obama said in his opening remarks at a meeting with leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.
He said an international arbitration ruling on July 12 against China was “binding” and “helped to clarify maritime rights in the region.”
ASEAN will hold a separate summit later Thursday with other world powers, including China and the US The summit is expected to let China off with a muted reprimand over its expansionist activities in South China Sea, according to a draft of their joint statement to be released Thursday.
The mild language in the statement, despite growing frustrations in the region over China’s claims, is a reflection of Beijing’s diplomatic, economic and military clout within ASEAN, which forms the core of the East Asia Summit that also includes the US, China, Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
The US has repeatedly expressed concern over Beijing’s actions in the resource-rich sea. Obama brought that up again.
Referring to the arbitration panel’s ruling that invalidated China’s claims, Obama said: “I realize this raises tensions but I also look forward to discussing how we can constructively move forward together to lower tensions and promote diplomacy and regional stability.”
China went to great lengths to block any references in the statement to land reclamation, militarization or loss of trust, lobbying for the document to avoid mention of recent activities or the need to respect legal processes, said a senior Obama administration official.
Though Beijing recently announced a $600 million aid package to ally Cambodia, China was unable to get it to block the statement, said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss diplomatic discussions. Instead, Cambodia opposed including an explicit mention of the UN tribunal’s ruling, the official said.
“We reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability and security and freedom of navigation in and over-flight in the South China Sea,” said the draft.
“Several Leaders remained seriously concerned over recent developments in the South China Sea … We stressed the importance for the parties concerned to resolve their disputes by peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international laws,” it said.
The statement also made no reference to the land reclamation activities by China, which has turned shoals and coral reefs into seven man-made islands and built airstrips capable of handling military aircraft on three of them. ASEAN leaders at their earlier summit on Tuesday expressed concern over China’s island-building.
The ASEAN leaders had also said that their summit “took note of the concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”
The use of the phrase “some leaders” in the two statements underscores the fundamental problem ASEAN and the wider East Asia Summit has in dealing with China — not all its members are willing to scold Beijing. Cambodia, for example, remains firmly in China’s camp, as is Laos to a large extent, preventing any robust statement from the consensus-bound ASEAN group.
The issue of ownership of territories in the South China Sea has come to dominate ASEAN summits in recent years. China claims virtually the entire sea as its own, citing historical reasons. That has pitted it against the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, all members of ASEAN, which have overlapping claims.
On Wednesday, the Philippines released what it says are surveillance pictures of Chinese coast guard ships and barges at the disputed Scarborough Shoal, an apparent attempt to publicize its concerns before ASEAN leaders met with Chinese Premier Li Kequiang in Vientiane.
The Philippines is concerned that China may plan to turn the shoal into another man-made island.
But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China has not done anything to alter the circumstances surrounding the shoal.
“What I can tell you is that the situation in waters near Huangyan Island remains unchanged and China hasn’t made any new moves,” Hua said in Beijing, using the shoal’s Chinese name. “We should be highly alert against the mischief-making intentions of people who spread such groundless information in such situations.”
New Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has taken a more conciliatory approach to China than his predecessor, and has said he would not raise the dispute in an adversarial manner that might upset Beijing.
The US military has also expressed concern over the possibility that China might turn Scarborough into another island, something that would give Beijing’s forces greater control over a swath of the South China Sea used as a passageway to the Taiwan Strait.