China has long been able to divide its neighbors on sensitive regional issues, but its latest aggressions in the South China Sea appear to have galvanized opinion against Beijing more forcefully than in the past. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations will meet this week in Kuala Lumpur, and tensions are rising in the run-up. Just one day after Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi warned ASEAN that South China Sea disputes should not be on the agenda, the Philippines’ foreign ministry has thumbed its nose at Beijing. Reuters reports:
“We see no let up on the unilateral and aggressive activities of our northern neighbor in the South China Sea,” [Philippines Foreign Minister Albert Del Rosario] said at a meeting in the Malaysian capital.“The massive reclamation activities … have undermined peace, security and stability in the South China Sea,” he said, urging Southeast Asian countries to address the issue with China. […]“The Philippines fully supports and will pro-actively promote the call of the United States on the ‘3 halts’: halt in reclamation, halt in construction, and halt in aggressive actions that could further heighten tensions,” Del Rosario said in [an earlier] statement.“We will agree to be bound only if China and other claimant states agree to the same.”
Singapore’s foreign minister K. Shanmugam echoed that sentiment, telling reporters that the “South China Sea is an issue. We cannot pretend that it’s not an issue.” Similarly, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Asean needed to “take a more active role” in dealing with regional security and “overlapping [territorial] claims.”But perhaps most significantly, ASEAN itself as an institutions seems to be ready to step up to the plate:
But on Tuesday, Asean Secretary-General Le Luong Minh agreed with Mr. Najib’s call for a more assertive and collectively responsive Southeast Asia, criticizing Beijing for “eroding the very trust and confidence…between Asean and China” through its “reclamation activities, illegal fishing bans and the harassment of fishermen” in the South China Sea.He urged Beijing to engage “in a really meaningful phase of consultations” with Asean to ease tensions.The U.S. has likewise encouraged Asean to impose itself on the South China Sea problem preoccupying several of its members. It would only be “natural” for Asean to address what is a “critical aspect of regional security,” State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington Monday.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Kuala Lumpur tomorrow for what could be a tumultuous meeting. Countries that are not party to the dispute (and countries like Thailand that have drifted towards Beijing under the new junta) might be able to blunt some of the language coming out of the meeting. But it sure sounds like all of China’s recent moves have finally ginned up enough annoyance among its otherwise fractious neighbors for them to put up a united front—and actually give Beijing some pause.