KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Southeast Asian countries on Tuesday backed a U.S. call to halt land reclamation in the South China Sea, underlining unease in the region over Beijing’s continued expansion on disputed islands.
China has said it does not want the issue raised at this week’s meeting of foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Kuala Lumpur.
But Malaysia Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said member nations agreed that “exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate tension must be enhanced” in the South China Sea.
Philippines Foreign Minister Albert Del Rosario accused China of carrying out “massive reclamation activities” in the disputed waters.
“We see no let up on the unilateral and aggressive activities of our northern neighbor in the South China Sea,” he said at a meeting in the Malaysian capital.
“The massive reclamation activities ... have undermined peace, security and stability in the South China Sea,” he said, urging Southeast Asian countries to address the issue with China.
In an earlier statement, Del Rosario said the Philippines was ready to help de-escalate tensions if China and other claimant states agreed to be bound by the same conditions.
Neither China nor the United States are members of ASEAN, but both will be represented during several days of talks. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday and Thursday.
“The Philippines fully supports and will pro-actively promote the call of the United States on the ‘3 halts’: halt in reclamation, halt in construction, and halt in aggressive actions that could further heighten tensions,” Del Rosario said in a statement.
“We will agree to be bound only if China and other claimant states agree to the same.”
Singapore’s Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam told reporters in Kuala Lumpur that the South China Sea could not be ignored, adding that Singapore was not happy with an informal code of conduct signed by ASEAN and China in 2002.
“South China Sea is an issue. We cannot pretend that it’s not an issue,” he said.
“We have got to move beyond philosophical discussions to actually say what is in the substance of the agreement.”
In a speech at a Singapore university on Tuesday, Kerry addressed tensions in Asia and said that the United States wanted a region where “countries cooperate to prevent small disputes from growing into large ones.”
Malaysia, the current chair of ASEAN, has said the topic was not off-limits and would be raised. In opening remarks on Tuesday, Aman said ASEAN should play a major role in reaching an “amicable” solution to the territorial dispute.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.
China has shown no sign of halting its construction of artificial islands in disputed areas.
It has also accused the United States of militarizing the South China Sea by staging patrols and joint military drills, while the United States has called for a halt in China’s artificial island building in the area.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in comments likely to provoke regional neighbors and Washington, said the United States and the Philippines should “count how many runways there are in the South China Sea and who built them first.”
In a front page commentary on the overseas edition of the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, a senior academic said that the U.S. was teaming up with Japan to “disrupt” the South China Sea.
“Japan has been cooperating with the United States to hype up the ‘China threat’, making noise for their alliance to interfere in the South China Sea,” Su Xiaohui, a senior researcher at the Foreign Ministry-backed China Institute of International Studies, wrote.
“This is not beneficial to regional peace and stability.”
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING, Manual Mogato in MANILA, David Brunnstrom in SINGAPORE and Angie Teo in KUALA LUMPUR; Editing by Mike Collett-White