Let It Go: ASEAN Countries Entreat China Regarding Its Takeover Of The South China Sea

Kenneth Lim

"Let it go" would about sum up the speeches voiced Tuesday in a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Kuala Lumpur regarding China's land reclamation projects across the South China Sea. The 2015 ASEAN conference hosted by Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur between August 1 and 6 has given member countries a forum to air what they think of China's actions.

ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh expressed members' concerns over China's unilateral projects in the heavily used and resource-rich sea. In a Yahoo! report, Minh mentioned the need to adhere to a code of conduct.

"We are calling for the termination of such activities, which are of concern to us, and eroding trust and confidence among the parties, and complicating the very process of negotiating. In the face of the situation, it is even more urgent for ASEAN and China to early conclude the COC."

Vietnam had a major clash with China in 1988 when China dispatched a fleet of ships from its southernmost province of Hainan to the Spratly Islands where Vietnam has a territorial claim. A hundred Vietnamese soldiers were dispatched on two transport ships to defend the Johnson South Reef in the Spratly chain. Four Chinese frigates closed in, shooting dead about 70 Vietnamese defenders and landing an assault force to overrun the reef.

Due to its continuing conflict with China, Vietnam has beefed up its military with arms from Russia. Over a month ago, Vietnam received the fourth of six Kilo-class submarines ordered from Russia, and 28 of 50 promised Klub missiles, according to The Diplomat.

As for the Philippines, its territorial woes started in 1994 when China seized the Filipino-claimed Mischief Reef. In 2012, China followed up by taking over the Scarborough Shoal, which is within the 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines, as laid out by UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).

Because of a constitution that renounces war as an instrument of national policy, the Philippines is ill-equipped to defend its shores from foreign invasion. It has therefore chosen the path of arbitration through UNCLOS. So far, the United Nations agency has heard the Philippine side of the case while China refuses to participate in the arbitration while continuing to convert sandbars into military airstrips.

Antonio T. Carpio, Senior Associate Justice of the Philippine Supreme Court, suggests as a peaceful solution, that China not let ambition get in the way of justice, and that it should go with its neighbors in declaring the South China Sea a sanctuary for fish and part of the global commons.

Japan's Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera has recently declared that his country would officially back the Philippines' claim of territorial sovereignty. As an old Philippine ally, the U.S. has sent guided missile destroyer U.S.S. Fitzgerald to stage naval maneuvers no more than 50 miles from a Filipino shoal position surrounded by Chinese naval ships.

Meanwhile, according to the Xinhua news agency, the Chinese navy went through a "live firing drill" Tuesday in the South China Sea, involving about a hundred naval ships with aircraft, missile launchers, and battalions of troops. The alleged purpose of the exercise was to improve maritime combat readiness.

Last year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested a dual track approach with China handling the South China Sea disputes under a multilateral framework, meaning, the ASEAN. Now that the ASEAN has issued its "let it go" message, the onus is on China to respond.

[Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images]