Maritime disputes in the South China Sea involving China and some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations topped the agenda in an ASEAN leaders's summit held last week in Naypiydaw, the capital of Myanmar. The summit chairman's statement called for acceleration of talks aimed at drawing up a legally binding Code of Conduct in the sea area. But its expression was weak, compared with the ASEAN foreign ministers' statement earlier this year. One wonders whether the ASEAN leaders can forge a united front to change the attitude of China, which so far has failed to take a convincing action to conclude the COC at an early date.
In the statement, the ASEAN leaders "welcomed the progress in the consultations for implementing the DOC" or the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which ASEAN and China signed in 2002 but has no binding power. They also agreed to "intensify consultations with China ... on the early conclusion of COC" in the South China Sea. But they refrained from expressing concerns about China's behavior in the area — even though China operated an oil-well drilling facility near the Paracel Islands, over which it has a territorial dispute with Vietnam, from early May to mid-July and has been reclaiming land to expand the Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Island, claimed by both China and the Philippines, since around June. China reportedly has a wharf and a helipad on the reef, along with about 200 marines.
The ASEAN foreign ministers, in a joint communique issued after their August meeting in Naypiydaw, said, "We remained seriously concerned over recent developments which had increased tensions in the South China Sea and reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability, maritime security as well as freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea."