Trade and the disease COVID-19 were major issues for China and 10 Southeast Asian countries when they met this month. Yet they largely ignored an issue of regional concern: the question of competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Experts believe their failure to deal with the territorial dispute could be a sign of difficult times for the competing claimants in the weeks to come.
China and several members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) disagree on who controls about 90 percent of the sea. They said very little about the subject at the 37thASEAN Summit, which ended in Vietnam on Sunday.
At the meetings, government officials talked about the way China warned other countries about COVID-19. There was also the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade deal, of which all the delegates appeared satisfied.
Observers say there was no talk of the South China Sea because there were no new ideas on how to solve the problem.
“Amidst this celebratory mood, I don’t think they would dampen that with something…on the South China Sea,” said Ei Sun Oh. He is senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam are worried that China may attempt to claim the South China Sea for itself.
Since 2010, there have been several notable incidents in the waterway. China angered Vietnam by sending surveys ships and setting up an oil rig along in coastal waters. Malaysia became worried when China followed two of its ships through the sea, and the Philippines became very angry when China took control of an area known to be rich in fish. China angered the other claimants when it began creating islands in the sea. Chinese officials say their country’s claims to the area are based on historical records.
Summit Host Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc raised the issue during an ASEAN-China Summit, one of several smaller meetings that took place.
“The leaders of both sides shared the view on the importance of building the East Sea into a sea of peace, security, stability, and cooperation,” the prime minister said in a statement.
To Vietnamese, the South China Sea is known as the East Sea.
Vietnam is usually the most outspoken ASEAN member on the South China Sea. It may feel pressure to comment, but quietly, noted Alexander Vuving. He serves as a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.
Vuving said that any statement signed by Vietnam would be very similar to statements made at earlier summits.
The Vietnamese prime minister said more in his statement on COVID-19, especially China’s promise to give about $1 million to the ASEAN pandemic relief fund.
Both Vietnam and China report few cases of the coronavirus and normal economic activity. However, tourism and factory orders are still low because of disease-related closures in the West.
The new trade partnership would help the economies of its 15 members by forming the world’s largest trade group. It would cover about 33 percent of all economic activity worldwide. China and ASEAN both signed the agreement.
The signing Sunday, without action on the South China Sea dispute, sends a message from ASEAN to China that trade is more important than security issues, said Stephen Nagy. He is a senior associate professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo.
The decision to avoid discussion of the territorial dispute adds pressure on everyone to sign a maritime code of conduct by next year, keeping with a timeline set by China, experts say.
China and ASEAN have been working on the system of rules since 2002. There is now new interest after China lost a world court legal battle with the Philippines.
I'm Susan Shand.
VOA’s Ralph Jennings reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
regional – adj. a specific area
summit – n. a meeting of leaders who plan to negotiate
mood – n. an attitude or feeling shared by many people
dampen – adj. to make (something) less strong or activ
fellow – n. a scholar
rig – n. a large truck or machine
stability – adj. he quality or state of something that is not easily changed or likely to change
tourism – n. visiting a place for pleasure
maritime – adj. concerning the ocean