YANGON/NAYPYITAW – Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung told Southeast Asian leaders that China is slandering his country and committing dangerous violations in disputed waters, but the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) group refrained from criticizing Beijing in a summit communique released Monday.
Southeast Asian leaders expressed “serious concern” over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, according to the statement, amid a growing row between Vietnam and Beijing over contested waters.
The communique from ASEAN follows a summit Sunday that was dominated by escalating maritime tensions.
ASEAN called on all parties involved to “exercise self-restraint, not to resort to threat(s) or use of force, and to resolve disputes by peaceful means in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law.”
Observers say the statement marks a change of tone by the regional bloc, many of whose members have close economic and political ties with China.
The statement “represents a slight tightening of ASEAN’s position,” said Vietnam expert Carl Thayer, adding it suggests a rare level of “consensus” on the vexing sea rights issue.
But “the fact that no party was mentioned — conspicuously China — is standard ASEAN fare,” he added.
Tensions rose in the resource-rich South China Sea last week after China positioned a giant oil rig in an area also claimed by Vietnam. Each country accused the other of ramming its ships near the disputed Paracel Islands.
In rare protests that looked likely to prolong the tense standoff, hundreds of Vietnamese rallied in the country’s biggest cities Sunday to denounce China.
ASEAN, a loose grouping that relies on unanimous consensus to reach decisions, faced a test of unity at the summit as some members expressed alarm over China’s growing assertiveness and pushed for a strong statement.
Japan expressed support Monday for the calls for restraint.
“We hope that countries concerned will refrain from taking unilateral actions that will heighten the tensions, and act calmly in accordance with relevant international law,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference.
China’s Foreign Ministry, in a statement late Saturday, said the issue was not “a problem between China and ASEAN” and that it opposed member states using it to sow discord.
“The Chinese side is always opposed to certain countries’ attempts to use the South (China) Sea issue to harm the overall friendship and cooperation between China and the ASEAN,” it said.
The escalation risks spilling over to separate territorial disputes between Japan and 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 U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit last month to Asia to reassure allies of Washington’s commitment to its strategic rebalance to the region. Still, Obama said the U.S. is not seeking to contain or control China and that the focus of U.S. foreign policy has moved away from deploying combat troops and toward “avoiding errors.”
“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, Australia. “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.
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 kilometers south from China’s Hainan Island to equatorial waters off the coast of Borneo.