Bangkok: South-east Asian nations and China are edging closer to an agreement that aims to lessen tensions over the flashpoint waters of the South China Sea.
Regional leaders meeting in Manila starting on Friday will exclude references to China’s militarisation of seven artificial islands in the disputed waters, according to the draft of a statement to be released by Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte.
China has built runways, hangars and placed radars and surface-to-air missiles on seven islands in defiance of the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which last year issued a statement emphasising the importance of “non-militarisation and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation.”
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, where about $US5 trillion of trade passes each year, while parts are also claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Carlyle Thayer, an expert on the South China Sea from University of New South Wales’ Australian Defence Force Academy, said China and ASEAN could agree on the ground rules or “framework” for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea by June, while a formal agreement will take longer, possibly spilling over until 2018.
“As long as diplomatic momentum continues China will slow its militarisation and consolidation and control of its artificial islands,” he said.
Professor Thayer said China has agreed to co-operate with ASEAN in part because of diplomatic pressure from some ASEAN states but also Mr Duterte has “also played a big part.”
Mr Duterte, the firebrand former mayor of southern Davao City, has revived his country’s economic and diplomatic ties with China and sought to recast relations with the US, its long-time ally, since taking office last year.
The shift comes despite that some influential military figures, diplomats and powerful politicians in the Philippines continue to view China with deep suspicion and believe their country should maintain close security ties with the US.
Chairing the two-day Manila summit, Mr Duterte is expected to push for a speeding up of negotiations on a Code of Conduct, which rival claimants have failed to agree on for many years.
Mr Duterte supports his country negotiating directly with China which Chinese leaders have been demanding.
The president has not pushed a UN finding last year that the Philippines held exclusive sovereignty over its claimed areas of the waters.
China refused to recognise the case and insists its activities on the islands are for defence purposes and are taking place in its sovereign waters.
Not all Filipinos are happy with Duterte’s handling of the issue.
“Everyone is now watching the Philippines, we expect China to send its message to Southeast Asian countries through Duterte,” a former government official involved in foreign policy told Reuters.
“We are now acting like China’s lackey.”
Professor Thayer said China is also capitalising on the Trump administration’s preoccupation with North Korea and its “blindness towards Asia.”
The Washington Post reports that almost 100 days into his administration President Trump has so far failed to install Asia policy officials in several key posts across his government, hampering strategic development and slowing relationship-building ties with key allies in the region.
Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is scheduled to meet Mr Trump in the US next week.
By Lindsay Murdoch
Sydney Morning Herald