MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines criticized fellow Southeast Asian nations Tuesday for failing to take a united stand against China over maritime rights in the South China Sea, a crucial commercial shipping lane thought to contain valuable oil and minerals.
The comments by Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario coincide with the arrival of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Manila for a two-day visit in which the Philippines is likely to press Washington to help resolve disputes in the sea lanes claimed by China.
“They’re concerned from a security point of view and are looking at us to identify ways to work together,” a senior U.S. defense official traveling with Clinton told reporters. “We’re very sensitive to making sure that this does not in any way alarm or provoke anybody else.”
Regional leaders gather in Bali, Indonesia, this week for back-to-back summits of the ASEAN and East Asia groupings where the issue is also expected to be raised.
The summits follow a meeting in Honolulu this past weekend of leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
Beijing claims that entire maritime region, which contains rich energy and fisheries resources, pitting it against coastal states Vietnam and the Philippines in a test of wills that erupted in violent clashes in recent years.
Diplomats in Vietnam and the Philippines have privately expressed concern that Beijing is using its economic influence on some members of the 10-state Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to prevent the regional bloc from steering negotiations over conflicting claims.
The Philippines has proposed a “Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation,” or ZoPFFC, to define which areas are disputed and which are under the sovereignty of a country. That would pave the way for a joint cooperation area.
In the first sign of discord as regional foreign ministers met on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, del Rosario reprimanded Southeast Asia, suggesting it was failing to flex its diplomatic muscle in the face of pressure from China.
“We have been given the impression that political and economic considerations have hindered a fruitful and mutually acceptable outcome on the discussions of the ZoPFFC,” Rosario said in a statement in Manila Tuesday that was read by his deputy at an ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Bali.
“ASEAN must play a decisive role at this time if it desires to realize its aspirations for global leadership.”
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, whose country holds the rotating ASEAN chairmanship, said the Philippine proposal failed to find traction in the region.
“The core problem is to define which areas are in dispute and which areas are not,” he told reporters in Bali. “So to many countries, this almost appeared to be a non-starter.”
Maritime security will be front and center when U.S. President Barack Obama attends the East Asia Summit in Bali this weekend, the first U.S. leader to join the annual meeting of Asian leaders and dialogue partners.
Obama is expected to respond to China’s territorial sea claims which the Philippines and other U.S. allies regard as economically and militarily threatening.
Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei are other claimants to parts of the South China Sea. Those countries, along with the United States and Japan, have pressured Beijing to try and seek some way forward on sovereignty, which has flared again this year with often-tense maritime stand-offs.
But China, growing in confidence and military power, sees no reason to back down.
Countries such as the Philippines are increasingly concerned and fear their Asian allies will succumb to Beijing’s influence on the issue.
Del Rosario said there was no full participation of ASEAN member states in an ASEAN Maritime Legal Experts’ Meeting, making it difficult to reach consensus on the issue.
Manila hosted the legal experts’ meeting in September but Laos and Cambodia -- both of which have benefited from waves of Chinese investment in recent years -- did not turn up despite indicating they would, preventing a joint position.
“ASEAN is now at a critical junction of playing a positive and meaningful role to contribute in the peaceful resolution of the disputes in the South China Sea,” del Rosario said.
China and Taiwan also claim the whole of the world’s second-busiest sea lane, which has rich deposits of oil and gas and is also a major fisheries resource.
Beijing wants to resolve the dispute through bilateral negotiations and has rejected calls for United Nations arbitration, but other claimants prefer a multilateral approach, including an indirect role for the United States.
Washington has supported Manila’s multilateral and rules-based approach to resolve the issue and has pledged military assistance to upgrade the Philippines’ ability to patrol its maritime borders in the area.
Clinton will sign a partnership agreement to mark 60th anniversary of the countries’ Mutual Defense Treaty.
Briefing journalists traveling with Clinton, a senior U.S. state department official said Washington will continue efforts in the country’s restive south to help fight Islamic militants but “are focusing more on maritime capabilities and other aspects of expeditionary military power.”
“We are working on a whole list of things that improve their own indigenous capabilities to be able to deal with maritime challenges,” he said, adding the U.S. has provided the Philippines with a destroyer and a second ship will come soon.
Additional reporting by Olivia Rondonuwu in Nusa Dua, Indonesia. Editing by Jason Szep and Ed Lane