BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN (Reuters) - Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario walked into a regional security forum this week to hear his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi reel off a list of complaints against Manila for stirring tensions over the South China Sea.
Del Rosario was not scheduled to speak, but after hearing Wang’s speech at Sunday’s closed-door meeting in the kingdom of Brunei, he raised his hand and proceeded to rebut China’s allegations one by one, according to Philippine diplomats. The Singapore foreign minister called it “testy exchanges”.
The departure from the usual diplomatic niceties that mark such multilateral gatherings was the latest display of animosity over competing claims in the oil-rich South China Sea, one of Asia’s most dangerous military flashpoints.
Despite rare progress towards easing tensions between China and Southeast Asian nations at the Brunei meeting, a binding agreement remains a distant prospect, with Beijing seen in no rush to limit a growing naval reach that is alarming neighbors such as Vietnam and the Philippines.
“My response was simply that the core issue is that China has taken the position that they have indisputable sovereignty over nearly the entire South China Sea,” Del Rosario told reporters later. “Since that is a grossly excessive claim, we need to settle this in accordance with international law. So I asked everyone to support that.”
China’s agreement later that day to hold talks with Southeast Asia on maritime rules appeared to mark a new chapter in efforts to resolve the dispute. After years of resisting efforts by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to start talks on the proposed Code of Conduct, China said it would host talks between senior officials in September.
The code however would not touch on countries’ territorial claims but would set “rules of the road” for actions by ships, aiming to minimize the risk of a misstep that could lead to conflict.
The talks to be held in China are relatively low-level and were carefully described in the joint ASEAN-China statement on Sunday as “consultations” rather than “negotiations” - an important nuance that signals that no real progress is likely.
China also succeeded in securing ASEAN’s agreement to involve a board of experts such as academics and former diplomats - so-called “eminent persons” - in guiding the process. ASEAN countries had previously been against this, amid concerns it will result in further delays.
A senior U.S. administration official who attended the Brunei meeting said the new talks were welcome, but by no means a breakthrough.
“It’s not enough to simply promise some form of talks in the run-up to a multilateral meeting as a way of abating criticism and creating the appearance of progress,” the official said.
“There has to be a full-fledged effort to try to work out in practical terms what a mechanism or set of mechanisms would be (to lower tensions).”
Friction over the South China Sea, one of the world’s most important waterways, has surged as China uses its growing naval might to more forcefully assert its vast claims over the oil and gas rich sea, raising fears of a military clash. Four ASEAN nations, including Vietnam and the Philippines, have overlapping claims with China.
Washington, an ally of the Philippines and also Vietnam, has not taken sides, but Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated in Brunei its strategic interest in freedom of navigation through the busy sea and desire to see a Code of Conduct signed quickly.
Those risks have risen in recent weeks as three Chinese ships have converged just 5 nautical miles from a small reef where the Philippines maintains a small military force.
China has condemned the Philippine presence at the Second Thomas Shoal as an “illegal occupation”, even though the reef is within Manila’s 200-nautical mile economic exclusion zone.
The encroachment is part of China’s strategy of sending ships to far-flung parts of the sea to protect fishing fleets and press its sovereignty claims, which Manila condemned this week as causing “increasing militarization.”
Las month, Chinese state media warned that a “counterstrike” against the Philippines was inevitable if it continued to provoke Beijing in the South China Sea.
The Philippines has one of the least equipped militaries in Asia, but is pursuing a $1.8 billion modernisation program and has revived plans to build new air and naval bases at Subic, just 124 miles from one of the contentious areas on the South China Sea.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino, who retires in 2016, said last week: “Rest assured that before I step down from office, guarding our skies are new and modern equipment like lead-in fighters, long-range patrol aircraft, close air support aircraft, light-lift fixed-wing aircraft, medium-lift aircraft, attack helicopters, combat utility helicopters and air defense radars.”
On Sunday, Beijing complaints against Manila included: the Philippines’ decision this year to appeal for U.N. arbitration over maritime claims without informing China and its joint military exercises last week with the United States near a disputed shoal.
Wang also condemned the Philippines for grounding an old navy ship in the Second Thomas Shoal to claim the area.
China and the Philippines accuse each other of violating the Declaration of Conduct, a non-binding confidence-building agreement on maritime conduct signed by China and ASEAN in 2002. Such differences could be another obstacle to agreeing a more comprehensive pact as China has stressed that countries must first show good faith by abiding by the DoC.
Still, the Philippines appeared to welcome the progress at the Brunei meeting, even if it was scant.
“It’s more than a chit-chat,” Evan Garcia, the Philippines’ deputy foreign secretary told reporters. “We have to start the process.”
Thailand’s foreign minister described Sunday’s agreement as “very significant”, but most other ASEAN ministers gave it a more cautious welcome.
“The quality of the process is as important as the result. We want to make sure that we (use) every possible opportunity for as much consultation as possible,” said Marty Natalegawa, Indonesia’s foreign minister.
“Breakthrough makes it sound very dramatic.”
Additional reporting by Megha Rajagopalan and Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan