Southeast Asia Ministers Urge Self-Restraint on Sea Spat


(Bloomberg) – Southeast Asian nations called for self-restraint on territorial disputes in the South China Sea as tensions escalate over China’s pursuit of its claims to large swaths of the resource-rich region.

Leaders called on all parties to “refrain from taking actions that would further escalate tension,” in a statement issued at the end of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nationsmeeting yesterday in Naypyidaw in Myanmar. They called for progress on a code of conduct that would seek to preserve freedom of navigation in the area, through which some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes run.

Disputes are mounting as Asian neighbors push back against Chinese moves to assert control over the maritime areas. Its placement of an oil rig near the disputed Paracel Islands led last week to clashes between Vietnamese and Chinese boats, while the Philippines detained 11 Chinese fisherman in a contested area. Vietnamese protested in several cities yesterday against China’s actions.

The escalation risks spilling over to separate territorial disputes between Japanand China in the East China Sea. Russia has recently stepped up air patrols around parts of North Asia, adding to the pressure.

“Japan will surely take advantage of the South China Sea tensions to advocate its ‘China Threat Theory’,” according to Liu Jiangyong, a professor at the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “Japan will likely support or aid Vietnam and the Philippines in challenging China and make the situation even worse,” Liu said by phone.

China’s actions come after President Barack Obama’s visit last month to Asia to reassure allies of the U.S. commitment to its strategic rebalance to the region. Still, Obama said the U.S. was not seeking to contain or control China and, speaking in Manila, he said the focus of U.S. foreign policy had shifted from deploying combat troops to “avoiding errors.”

‘How Far’

“I’m sure some in China are keen to see how far they can go,” said Mark Beeson, professor of international politics at Murdoch University in Perth. “The big question is whether this is a coordinated, top-down policy approved by Xi Jinping,” or “whether there’s quite a bit of ad hoc policy freelancing by the PLA and provincial governments,” he said, a reference to the People’s Liberation Army.

President Xi is expanding China’s naval reach to back its claims to the South China Sea that are based on the “nine-dash line” map, first published in 1947. That claim extends hundreds of miles south from China’s Hainan Island to equatorial waters off the coast of Borneo. China and Vietnam both claim theParacel Islands, and Asean members Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines have claims to other areas.

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