By Shailaja Neelakantan
Beijing and Southeast Asian nations have agreed not to escalate tensions in the South China Sea, a joint statement said, following recent Chinese incursions in maritime zones claimed by the Philippines and Malaysia.
Chinese state media, meanwhile, reported that Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the Burmese junta that the domestic situation in Myanmar would not affect Beijing’s friendship with Naypyidaw – a comment that seemed to contrast with China’s stated support for efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to solve post-coup turmoil in Myanmar.
A joint statement issued by ASEAN and China after a foreign minister-level meeting in Chongqing said the two sides had agreed to “enhance and promote maritime security” as well as “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability, and pursue the peaceful resolution of disputes.”
However, Philippine diplomats described as “tense” the discussions between the top diplomats of China and ASEAN that took place in Chongqing on Monday before the two sides issued the joint statement later that day. Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam were ranged on one side against China, while other ASEAN member-states kept mum, the diplomats indicated.
The joint statement also said that any quarrels with China would be resolved in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS.
Not mentioned in the statement was the fact that UNCLOS does not recognize historical claims, such as China’s, in the disputed waterway. Beijing does not accept an international tribunal’s 2016 ruling against its expansive claims in the South China Sea.
A separate statement from China on the outcome of the meeting said the two sides had agreed to “handle and manage differences through consultation.”
“It is natural for neighbors to run into problems,” Wang Yi said, according to a statement from the Chinese foreign ministry.
But these problems have worsened lately.
Last week, Malaysia said that 16 Chinese military planes had intruded into its maritime airspace above South China Sea waters near Borneo Island.
Putrajaya said it would summon the Chinese envoy and lodge a diplomatic protest with Beijing over its “threat to [Malaysia’s] national sovereignty.”
China said the planes were carrying out “routine flight activity” and did not violate Malaysia’s airspace.
In Chongqing on Monday, Malaysia told China that it “objects to the presence of foreign military assets contrary to freedom of navigation and overflight/air crossing under international law, as well as without the prior approval of the Malaysian Government.”
In April, Vietnam had denounced China’s unilateral imposition of an annual fishing ban in the South China Sea, Radio Free Asia, a BenarNews sister entity, reported at the time.
Vietnam said the ban violated its sovereignty over the Paracel Islands, UNCLOS and the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea agreed to in 2003.
Elsewhere in the maritime region, Beijing and Manila have been involved in a standoff since March when the Philippines said it had detected more than 200 ships manned by Chinese maritime militia at Whitsun Reef, in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Beijing claims that the reef is part of its “Nansha Islands” – China’s name for the Spratly Islands.
Since then, China has maintained a presence in Philippine waters, prompting Manila to file diplomatic protests with Beijing daily since April and until, at least, last week.
China’s stance on Myanmar
The ASEAN-China talks in Chongqing, in southwestern China, included Wunna Maung Lwin, the foreign minister appointed by the Burmese junta after the military overthrew an elected government on Feb. 1.
China’s Wang met with Wunna Maung Lwin on Tuesday and told him that “China will always support Myanmar in choosing a development path best suited to its national conditions,” according to a report by CGTN, a Chinese state-owned website.
Wang also told Wunna Maung Lwin that Beijing’s “friendly policy toward Myanmar is not affected by changes to Myanmar’s domestic and external situation,” CGTN reported.
During Monday’s meeting, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia said they were frustrated at the lack of progress in ASEAN’s implementation of a five-point consensus on Myanmar.
The consensus – agreed to by Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing during a special summit of ASEAN leaders in Jakarta in late April – includes an immediate end to violence, dialogue among all parties in the country and the appointment of a special envoy from the bloc to Myanmar. The military has since all but ignored the consensus.
The Burmese representative hit back at ASEAN members’ comments via Myanmar state media, saying the junta was committed to a five-point plan – except that plan was not ASEAN’s, but the military’s “five-point future program” declared in February after the coup.
That program, Wunna Maung Lwin said, was “the only way to ensure the democratic system that is disciplined and genuine” and would “scrutinize election fraud,” reported The Global New Light of Myanmar, a state-run publication.
Myanmar’s military claims that the November 2020 general election, which the party of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi resoundingly won resoundingly, was rigged.
Wang’s comments came a day after Indonesia said that China’s help was crucial in implementing ASEAN’s five-point consensus on Myanmar.
The Chinese foreign minister said on Tuesday that Beijing supported ASEAN in “playing a constructive role in properly handling Myanmar’s domestic issues.”
He also said China backed the “gradual implementation of the five-point consensus,” and urged all countries to “avoid unilateral sanctions and undue interference” in Myanmar.
Criticism from NUG
During a visit to Naypyidaw last weekend, ASEAN officials met with Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, but not with members of the shadow civilian government of former elected lawmakers.
Myanmar’s parallel civilian National Unity Government (NUG) criticized China and ASEAN for ignoring its representatives at the meeting in Chongqing as well.
“Both China and ASEAN had failed to invite the NUG on China-ASEAN Foreign Ministerial Meeting and 30th Anniversary Meeting,” NUG Foreign Minister Zin Mar Aung said Monday in an open letter posted on Facebook.
“The NUG’s Foreign Ministry and other ministries were hoping to participate in positive discussions bilaterally or multilaterally.”
Political analysts said that China could play a role in restoring peace and democracy in Myanmar.
Thein Tun Oo, from the Thayningha Strategic Studies Institute, said there had not been enough post-coup international pressure on the junta.
“We are now seeing the desire to work together for a political solution. So I believe we will see positive constructive results for Myanmar from this China-ASEAN conference in Chongqing,” Thein Tun Oo told the Myanmar Service of RFA.
Another analyst, Than Soe Naing, said China seemed unwilling to deal with the Myanmar crisis.
China “has avoided taking on the problem but has shifted the burden onto ASEAN,” Than Soe Naing told RFA.
“Instead of finding a solution to the problem, what we are seeing now is that both sides seem to be encouraging the coup and willing to give official recognition to the military council and move forward.”
Jason Gutierrez in Manila, Ahmad Syamsudin in Jakarta, and Radio Free Asia contributed to this report.