Kerry Urges Southeast Asia Unity on South China Sea Disputes

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, talks to Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. before the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-U.S. Foreign Ministers Meeting in Vientiane, Laos, Monday, July 25, 2016. Southeast Asia's main grouping made a last-ditch attempt to reach a consensus on countering China's territorial expansion in the South China Sea, but their deadlock appeared far from being resolved as minutes ticked by before a critical meeting with the Chinese foreign minister Monday. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

VIENTIANE, Laos — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday urged the divided nations of Southeast Asia to forge a consensus on how to address disputes with China in the South China Sea, appealing to the 10 countries to embrace a rules-based international system to resolve those differences peacefully.

Speaking to his foreign minister counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at a regional security conference in Laos, Kerry made his call shortly after ASEAN was unable to agree on a joint statement criticizing China for its territorial expansion in the South China Sea. Instead, the nations adopted a statement expressing concern about developments in the waters that made no mention of a landmark July 12 international arbitration panel ruling in a dispute between the Philippines and China that said Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea were illegal.

In a meeting with the Lao foreign minister, whose country currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the bloc, Kerry “urged ASEAN to reach consensus and issue a joint statement on the arbitral tribunal’s recent ruling on the South China Sea,” according to the State Department.

Addressing the foreign ministers of all 10 ASEAN members, Kerry took a less severe line, stressing the importance of complying with “a rules-based international system that protects the rights of all nations whether big or small.” He wrapped up his brief public remarks to that meeting by noting “how much can be accomplished when we work together, invest in the future, and perhaps most importantly support the rules-based system that has led to steadily increased peace and prosperity for nearly 50 years now.”

The State Department said later that behind closed doors Kerry and the other foreign ministers had “affirmed ASEAN’s full respect for diplomatic and legal processes to peacefully resolve disputes.” But, it was clear that not all agreed on respecting the arbitration decision. “Several stressed that both parties in the Philippines-China arbitration (should) abide by the decision and uphold international law,” the department said, in a pointed admission that there was no consensus on the matter.

Diplomats at the talks have said that Cambodia, and to a certain extent Laos, had been opposed to a strong statement on the South China Sea disputes.

After hectic negotiations before Kerry’s arrival in Vientiane from Paris earlier Monday, ASEAN issued a watered-down rebuke of China that amounted to less than a slap on the wrist, and exposed the deep divisions in a regional body that prides itself on unity.

China is bitterly opposed to the arbitration panel’s decision and vowed to ignore it. The U.S. has urged both China and the Philippines to respect the ruling.

In a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the sidelines of the larger conference on Monday, Kerry noted that China and the United States must continue to manage their differences in a mature way. Their meeting took place as President Barack Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice was visiting Beijing to cover some of the same issues.

Also on the sidelines of the conference in Laos, Kerry met the foreign ministers of Japan and Australia and all three expressed “serious concerns” about the South China Sea disputes and Chinese land reclamation in contested areas.

In a statement, the trio “voiced their strong opposition to any coercive unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions, underlined the importance of refraining from unilateral actions that cause permanent physical change to the marine environment in areas pending delimitation, and urged all states to refrain from such actions as large-scale land reclamation, and the construction of outposts as well as the use of those outposts for military purposes.”

In addition they put their full backing behind the arbitration panel’s decision, calling it “a crucial opportunity for the region to uphold the existing rules-based international order and to show respect for international law.”

Kerry will travel to Manila on Tuesday for talks with new Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte that are likely to focus on the South China Sea tensions.

Source: Associated Press