Asia's Game of Thrones
ASEAN Unanimously Unsettled By China

Speaking after a foreign ministers’ meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Philippines has said that the body is unanimously concerned about Chinese militarization in the South China Sea. Reuters:

Southeast Asian countries see China’s installation of weapons systems in the South China Sea as “very unsettling” and have urged dialogue to stop an escalation of “recent developments”, the Philippines said on Tuesday.

The region’s foreign ministers were unanimous in their concern over China’s militarization of its artificial islands, but were confident a framework for a code of maritime conduct could be agreed with Beijing by June, Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said. […]

He said demilitarisation would be a key component of any ASEAN-China code of conduct, but it was too soon to say whether Beijing’s dismantling of its weapons installations would be a prerequisite.

“The ASEAN members have been unanimous in their expression of concern about what they see as a militarization of the region,” Yasay told reporters after a ministers’ retreat on the Philippine island of Boracay.

It is no secret that many Asian nations are spooked by China’s actions in the South China Sea, but the statement comes as a surprise given that neither the Philippines nor ASEAN have been steadfast critics of China of late. The Philippines, which is chairing ASEAN for 2017, has been seeking to mend ties with Beijing under President Rodrigo Duterte, and recently warned the U.S. against using ASEAN as a proxy for its rivalry with China. And ASEAN itself rarely finds consensus on anything, especially China; the forum’s past efforts to issue tough statements denouncing Beijing’s activity in the South China Sea have been derailed, walked back or watered down by China-friendly members like Cambodia.

There are many recent developments that could be changing ASEAN’s calculus. Beijing has certainly stepped up the pace of its provocations in recent months, from its seizure of a U.S. drone off the Philippines’ waters to the recent war games and weapons tests in the South China Sea. But the most decisive factor, and the one explicitly cited by Yasay, appears to be China’s installation of weapons on the Spratly Islands. That development was revealed via satellite imagery in December and earned China an official rebuke from Manila.

ASEAN’s expression of concern over China may not translate immediately into action, and it is worth noting that Yasay’s remarks came as the summary of ASEAN members’ private concerns, not an official statement issued from the forum. Still, his comments offer a revealing look at the rising alarm felt by many states in Asia—even those most inclined toward Beijing—over China’s aggressive maneuvers. The Philippines also noted that they are still awaiting a “more concrete and clear picture” of Trump’s China policies, while expressing hope that the U.S. could play a constructive role. The Trump administration would do well to heed those voices, and communicate speedily how it intends to deter further Chinese militarization.

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