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Abe raises South China Sea dispute at ASEAN

Kyodo, Reuters, AP

Asia-Pacific leaders gathered Sunday for an annual summit where they condemned terrorism but remained apart on growing tensions in the disputed South China Sea.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in Kuala Lumpur came as maritime disagreements dominate global headlines.

The gathering featured 18 countries, including China, Japan and the United States.

Many leaders at the summit, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, raised concerns about the South China Sea, a key shipping route thought to hold significant oil and gas deposits, a Japanese official said.

U.S. President Barack Obama, Abe and almost all other leaders raised concerns over the situation in the sea, a key shipping route thought to hold significant oil and gas deposits, and said the time has come to lower tensions heightened by China’s land reclamation activities, according to the officials.

One of them, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said China received “verbal attacks from all corners during the meeting.”

“There is an ongoing large-scale and rapid reclamation project aimed at creating a base for military purposes” in the waters, Abe said after the summit. “I am seriously concerned about the move to change the status quo.”

Calling Beijing’s projects in the contested waterway a threat to freedom of navigation in the region, Washington last month sent a guided-missile destroyer within the 12-nautical-mile (22-km) territorial limit claimed by China around Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin on Sunday labeled U.S. patrols in the waters political provocations.

Beijing will continue to construct military facilities on artificial islands it is building, Liu told a news conference, saying the facilities are needed to protect the islands.

“This time, in a very high-profile manner, the U.S. sent military vessels within 12 nautical miles of China’s islands and reefs,” Liu said. “This has gone beyond the scope of freedom of navigation. It is a political provocation and the purpose is to test China’s response.”

At a separate news conference, U.S. President Barack Obama said the issue was a “key topic” at the summit that included China, as well as at a separate summit he had with leaders of 10 Southeast Asian countries.

“Many leaders spoke about the need to uphold international principles, including the freedom of navigation, and overflight and the peaceful resolution of disputes,” Obama said.

“My fellow leaders from Japan, Australia and the Philippines have reaffirmed that our treaty alliances remained the foundation of regional security. The United States is boosting our support for the Philippines maritime capabilities and those of our regional partners,” Obama said.

Beijing had managed to tamp down the issue last week at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which featured many of the same leaders. But after Obama voiced concern at Chinese moves in the waters in a Saturday meeting with leaders from the 10-member ASEAN grouping, the issue proved unavoidable Sunday.

“For the sake of regional stability, claimants should halt reclamation, new construction, and militarization of disputed areas,” Obama said Saturday.

At another meeting the same day that included Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, South Korean President Park Geun-hye and the ASEAN leaders, Abe expressed “serious concerns” about the reclamation and called for concerted efforts from the international community to block all unilateral attempts to change the status quo.

Neither Li nor other leaders reacted to or opposed these remarks, the officials added.

But China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported late Saturday that Li expressed discontent over the issue.

“In recent years, the South China Sea disputes, which should have been addressed by directly concerned countries through negotiation and talks, have been played up to become a problem concerning the South China Sea’s peace and stability and the freedom of navigation,” Li said according to Xinhua.

Li said some countries outside the region were conducting a high-profile intervention.

“That is in nobody’s interest,” Li said. “Only by expanding our common interests and seeking common ground can we narrow our differences,” he added.

Beijing, which claims almost the entire South China Sea, has accused of Tokyo and Washington of meddling and has repeatedly insisted that its territorial disputes should be resolved bilaterally.

China has rival claims in the South China Sea with Taiwan and four ASEAN members, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Aside from the maritime disputes, which have been seen as a battle for leadership in Asia between China and the United States, the leaders’ discussions will likely center on their cooperation in fighting terrorism, following Friday’s deadly assault by militants on a hotel in the Mali capital that left three Chinese businessmen dead.

The assault came a week after a spate of shootings and explosions in Paris, claimed by Islamic State extremists, killed 130 people.