Asean faces security challenge over sea row

Vietnam has warned that the inability of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to forge a unified front against Beijing's militarization of the South China Sea is a "test" of the regional bloc in the face of its greatest security challenge.

The unusually strong comments from a key claimant to the contested waters, came as diplomats met in Laos for the first summit since a UN-backed tribunal debunked Beijing's legal claim to vast stretches of the strategically vital sea.

After talks stuttered on Sunday, Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a late night statement warning that the South China Sea had become "a test case for the unity and the central role of Asean."

"Many ministers stressed that in this context, Asean should promote solidarity, unity and a central role," the statement added.

Diplomats met for a new round of crunch talks called for by Laos on Monday morning, but avoided rebuking Beijing or mentioning the UN tribunal's decision against China.

The Asean instead repeated it was "seriously concerned" by "land reclamations and escalation of activities" and merely called for self-restraint in the strategic waterway.

Diplomats gathered for a summit in the Laos capital spent days wrangling over how to respond to this month's ruling by a Hague-based tribunal which delivered a hammer blow to most of China's historical claims over the region.

Staunch Beijing ally Cambodia has been accused of scuttling efforts by the bloc to issue a joint statement calling on Beijing to adhere to the UN tribunal's decision.

Four Asean members -- Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei -- have competing claims with Beijing over parts of the South China Sea.

Most members of the bloc want to keep pressure on China over its campaign of island building in the strategic waters.

But Asean operates on a tradition of consensus diplomacy, meaning a single nation can have an effective veto power if it disagrees with the others.

China has been accused of teasing poorer members like Laos and Cambodia into fracturing regional unity with promises of aid and trade.

Critics have long derided Asean for lacking real diplomatic clout.

A failure to respond to the tribunal ruling or the region's key security issue will do little to counter those claims.

The ongoing impasse in Vientiane has led to fears of a repeat of a 2012 summit in Cambodia where the bloc failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in its history because of disagreements over the South China Sea.

Chinese pressure was blamed last month for a startling show of discord by the bloc, when countries swiftly disowned a joint statement released by Malaysia after an Asean-China meeting.

That statement had expressed alarm over Beijing's activities in the South China Sea. Cambodia and Laos were later identified as being behind moves to block the joint statement.

The Philippines said it would explore other venues to resolve its territorial dispute with China after the Asean failed to issue a joint statement on the the decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that rejected China's nine-dash line claim to most of the South China Sea.

A joint communique was dropped after objections from Cambodia was raised. China publicly thanked Cambodia for supporting its stance on maritime disputes, a position which threw the regional bloc's weekend meeting in the Laos capital of Vientiane into disarray.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. had earlier said that an Asean statement supporting the legal and diplomatic processes being pursued by the Philippines would not only reflect Asean acknowledgment and respect for a rules-based order, but also will reaffirm Asean's "centrality and solidarity in the regional security architecture that would enhance Asean's voice and growing influence in the international community."

International think tanks warned of the economic impact on the region if Asean will not unite to stop escalation of disputes in the South China Sea.

Bonnie S. Glaser, senior advisor for Asia, Center for Strategic and International Studies said, "Each year, $5.3 trillion of trade passes through the South China Sea; US trade accounts for $1.2 trillion of this total. Should a crisis occur, the diversion of cargo ships to other routes would harm regional economies as a result of an increase in insurance rates and longer transits. Conflict of any scale in the South China Sea would hamper the claimants from benefiting from the South China's Sea's proven and potential riches."

Ibrahim Almuttaqi of the Jakarta-based Habibie Center said the Asean must go beyond simple rhetoric and towards actions following the favorable ruling for the Philippines by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the West Philippine Sea dispute.

Source: The Standard