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Southeast Asian Leaders Go Soft on China Over Disputed Sea


Philippines China Disputed Shoal

China and a group of countries in Southeast Asia are likely to talk briefly about a territorial dispute when their leaders meet next month.

But some observers say the discussions will be without language that would anger the Chinese government.

Chinese officials will meet with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from November 10 through 14 in Manila. The Philippines, an ally of China for the past year, will be chairing the meetings.

ASEAN gatherings usually aim to strengthen general agreement, not publicize differences.

Observers expect statements from the meetings to note this dispute, over sovereignty in the South China Sea, without blaming any country.

Oh Ei Sun teaches international studies at Singapore Nanyang University. He expects the dispute to be noted at the ASEAN talks, but with very general language urging all sides to act responsibly.

China claims more than 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea. Since 2010, China has expanded its coast guard and military presence in the waterway, which is valued for its oil and fisheries. This expansion has angered four ASEAN members. Parts of the sea also are claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

The talks in Manila may be peaceful because China and ASEAN may be close to an agreement. Foreign ministers from the two sides agreed in August to language that would avoid sovereignty issues and work to avoid accidents at sea.

The agreement, called a code of conduct, had been stopped for five years largely because China didn’t like it. Then China’s occupation of a shoal in 2012 caused the Philippines to bring the territorial dispute to a world arbitration court. In July 2016, the court agreed with the Philippines. Since then, China has sought stronger relationships with ASEAN countries by making economic agreements.

ASEAN and China are expected to begin expanding the language of the code of conduct next year.

Usually, China avoids negotiating with groups of countries because such discussions lessen China’s power. ASEAN countries are home to 630 million people. Many of these nations receive support from the United States military.

China wishes to call the code of conduct talks “discussions” to avoid the more formal word “negotiations,” said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at The University of New South Wales. The Chinese government also put a condition that gives it a right to leave the talks, he noted.

China may be urging ASEAN not to let the United States or any powerful country get involved in the dispute while the talks continue, Thayer said.

But observers say ASEAN and China must recognize the deep sea dispute during the meetings in Manila.

ASEAN always discusses the South China Sea, Thayer noted. “They want progress,” he said.

Vietnam and the Philippines had already softened their positions toward China since the world court ruling, said Nathan Liu, international affairs professor at Ming Chuan University in Taiwan.

Last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made a friendly visit to Beijing. He received Chinese promises of $24 billion in development-related aid.

Vietnam promised in May to increase maritime cooperation with China, noted China’s official Xinhua News Agency. The pledge followed Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang’s meeting in Chinese Premier Le Keqiang.

Brunei and Malaysia, which had strong economic ties with China even before the court ruling, rarely speak about China’s maritime activities.

“The South China Sea issue is already gone,” Liu said. He believes that with the Philippines and Vietnam seeking agreement, no other country will raise the issue.

China has worried other countries since 2010 when it began developing man-made islands, some apparently for military use. Other worries for ASEAN include passage of Chinese coast guard ships and deployment of oil pumping stations in the sea.

I'm Susan Shand.

Ralph Jennings reported on this story for VOANews.com. Susan Shand adapted his report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

maritimeadj. relating to sailing on the sea or doing business (such as trading) by sea

sovereignty - n. an area’s right to govern itself

shoal - n. an area where the water in a sea, lake, or river is not deep

arbitration - n. a process of settling an argument or disagreement in which the people or groups on both sides present their opinions and ideas to a third person or group

emeritusadj. retired with an honorary name from an office or position, especially in a university

pledge - v. to make a serious promise

formaladj. involving or related to som

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