Asean Chief Says ‘Can’t Accept’ Beijing’s South China Sea Claims
China’s ‘nine-dash’ line isn’t compatible with international law,
By Ben Otto and Jason Ng in the Wall Street Journal
KUALA LUMPUR—The secretary-general of Southeast Asia’s 10-member trade and security bloc Sunday said the group can’t agree to China’s use of its so-called nine-dash line to claim the contested waters of the South China Sea as Beijing continues its land-reclamation efforts in the area.
China’s island-building project in the Spratly Islands in particular has raised concerns that it is trying to enforce control of an area where the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries also claim territory. Satellite images released earlier this month indicate that China has begun building a concrete runway on reclaimed land built up around a disputed reef, according to defense intelligence provider IHS Jane’s.
Beijing claims nearly the entire South China Sea as its own, using a tongue-shaped nine-dash line that it says reflects the country’s historic territory.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations “could not accept the dash line” because it isn’t compatible with international law, Le Luong Minh said in an interview as the group’s two-day leaders summit gets under way in Malaysia. He said both the territorial line, which appears on some Chinese maps and claims wide areas of the region where nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines have claims, and China’s recent reclamation efforts in the sea run counter to a 13-year-old agreement between China and Asean.
Mr. Minh said Asean would also speed up talks to establish a code of conduct on how to resolve overlapping territorial claims in the potentially energy-rich region, which is also home to around half the world’s commercial shipping lanes. Beijing, however, appears reluctant to participate. “We have not been able to engage China in more substantive discussions,” he said, but suggested that Asean wouldn’t directly criticize China over the course of the summit.
The Philippines, though, has challenged China’s claims at the United Nations, which is scheduled to decide in July whether a tribunal should hear the Philippines’ protest.
China’s foreign ministry last month criticized Mr. Minh, a Vietnamese national who was named head of Asean in 2013, for suggesting China’s reclamation efforts in the South China Sea contravene international law. In recent months, China has been adding sand to reefs in the region to create outposts that it says will help its fishermen.
Mr. Minh’s dismissed Beijing’s suggestion that he maintain the group’s neutrality.
“What kind of neutrality [are they] talking about? Can I be neutral to Asean interests?” he said. “How can I be neutral to truth?”
The status of uninhabited land and reefs in the South China Sea “must not be changed,” he added.
The Asean leaders are expected to discuss other issues during the summit, including regional conflicts and the formal, partial advent of a regional economic zone by the end of this year that lowers tariffs and barriers to labor movement and investment.
Mr. Minh said the group is still drafting an official statement for the summit, but it will include an “expression of concern” about issues affecting peace and stability in the region and will call, as it has in the past, for a swift conclusion to talks on a legally binding code of conduct in the South China Sea, originally made a goal in 2002.
Asked about U.S.’s attempts to boost connections with Asia in recent years, he said the U.S. “has been playing a constructive role in the region,” and that he hoped the relationship “can be enhanced, contributing to the maintenance of peace and stability.”
On other matters, Mr. Minh said Asean welcomes new sources of funding, such as the still-forming Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank led by Beijing, to help the region meet needs for around $100 billion in annual financing for infrastructure.
Mr. Minh added that the group hasn’t discussed the location of a headquarters for the bank, which Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, has been pushing to place in Jakarta.