Japan and the members of the Southeast Asian bloc voiced concerns Thursday over increasing tensions in the South and East China Seas, as China’s assertiveness grows and ASEAN considers when to resume negotiations with Beijing on a code of conduct.
Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, will hold a virtual summit chaired by Vietnam on Friday, where the delicate situation in the South China Sea will vie for attention with the 10-nation bloc’s efforts to chart a recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Regarding to the South China Sea issue, representatives of the countries agreed that peace, stability, security, safety and freedom of navigation and aviation in the region need to be taken as the top priority,” Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh said after ASEAN foreign ministers held an online meeting Thursday, according to Tuoi Tre (Youth) News.
As Asia has grappled with the coronavirus, China has upped the ante in the South China Sea, with deep sea surveys in disputed waters, unilateral declarations of its right to administer and police the area, and confrontations with vessels from other claimant states. ASEAN members Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have all challenged China’s claim to “historic rights” over virtually all the South China Sea.
Vietnam, which currently holds ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship, on Thursday called on fellow member states to “build an effective Code of Conduct in line with international law,” Vietnamese state-run media said.
Indonesia expressed interest last week in delaying those talks, citing the inability to hold complex negotiations virtually, but appeared to change its tune on Thursday.
“We believe that the code of conduct will contribute in creating a conducive environment in the South China Sea," Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi said at a press conference Thursday. Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto also met with his Chinese counterpart during a diplomatic trip to Russia on Wednesday.
ASEAN and China agreed back in 2002 on a Declaration of Conduct, which was a statement of principles on how parties should behave in the South China Sea. But completing a more detailed – and binding – Code of Conduct has proved much harder.
Negotiations began in earnest in 2017 with a tentative deadline for acceptance in 2021. A draft of the text of the agreement has been released but negotiations – like the ASEAN summit itself, which was originally meant to be held in April -- have been delayed by the pandemic.
In Tokyo on Thursday, Japanese Minister of Defense Taro Kono expressed concerns over China’s aggressive posture in the East China Sea – where it has a long-running territorial dispute with Beijing – and in the South China Sea, where it is not a claimant state but this week took part in naval drills with the United States and Singapore.
“China is trying to change the status quo unilaterally in East China Sea, South China Sea and with Indian border and Hong Kong as well,” Kono said at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. “It is easy to make connections about those issues.”
“Right now, what’s happening in East China Sea, our fighter jets scramble against Chinese airplanes almost every day, sometimes more than once. Their ships, with guns, are trying to violate our territorial waters constantly,” Kono said. “I think we need to raise awareness of what’s going on around Japan.”
Japan-China relations have been tense due to an increased China Coast Guard (CCG) and submarine presence around the disputed Senkaku Islands, which China calls the Diaoyu Dao and claims as its own. And on Tuesday, China released coordinates and Chinese names for 50 undersea features in the East China Sea, all of which are near the Senkakus – a move rejected by Japan, which said it would not affect its sovereignty over the islands.
"Giving names to surrounding seabed topography doesn't change the fact that the Senkakus are our country's inherent territory," Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan Suga Yoshihide told a press conference Thursday.
The Senkaku issue stokes nationalist sentiments on both sides. The city council of the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa approved a bill Monday that changed the status of the islands, effectively renaming the administrative area governing them Tonoshiro Senkaku. This prompted protests from China and Taiwan, with the former calling it a “serious provocation against China’s territorial sovereignty.”
“Some in Japan have long been hyping up so-called ‘external threats’ in order to free itself under various pretexts and achieve some breakthroughs in its military security policies,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Wednesday in response to a question concerning rumored changes to Japan’s defense posture.
“We urge Japan to draw lessons from history, faithfully implement its ‘exclusively defense-oriented policy’ and stay committed to peaceful development by taking real actions,” he said.