Aquino on ASEAN response to China: 'Very substantial progress'

MANILA, Philippines – Though it falls short of the Philippines' hard-line stance against China's reclamation in disputed waters, the response of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on the issue is "very substantial progress," Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said on Tuesday, April 28.

Speaking to Philippine media after the 26th ASEAN Summit in Langkawi, Malaysia, Aquino said there was a "marked change" on how the bloc is approaching China's aggression in the South China Sea, based on the ASEAN statement on the issue.

Previously, he said, the call to respond to China was sounded largely by the Philippines and Vietnam, ASEAN countries who claim parts of the disputed sea, along with Brunei and Malaysia. 

"Now, when you have not just this [Malaysian] chairman, but other chairmen and other members talking, shall we say, even more proactively about addressing the issue – that, I think, is a very marked change," said Aquino.

The Filipino leader's remarks came a day after summit chair Malaysia issued a statement saying China's land reclamation "has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security, and stability."

Malaysia, in its closing statement, also instructed the foreign ministers of ASEAN countries to "urgently address this matter" through dialogue mechanisms set up between the bloc and China.

Aquino said the Philippines tried to build an argument for a more unified approach to dealing with China in line with the Declaration on the Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea – an agreement which China signed.

"We emphasize, there is an ASEAN centrality, that China talk to us as a group and this is how we should behave," said Aquino.

The Philippines, said Aquino, had issued the strongest call for the affirmation of the DOC and the speedy formulation of a binding Code of Conduct – guidelines on how the ASEAN and China would peacefully co-exist despite conflicting claims over the South China Sea.

But the Philippines was also aggressive in blatantly calling China's actions wrong.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario challenged the ASEAN to put a stop to the reclamations.

But Malaysia balked at the idea of antagonizing China. 

"We must avoid any action that would be counter-productive and bring us further apart, either amongst ourselves, or with China," said Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman on the first day of the summit. 

ASEAN has been criticized for its weak responses to China, which some quarters say is due to China's immense economic power and diplomatic leverage. 

Despite their declared goal of achieving ASEAN integration, ASEAN member-states have diverging agendas. For instance, not all of them have a stake in the South China Sea dispute. 

New photos of China's large-scale reclamation activities that have buried hundreds of hectares of coral reefs have sparked anew public outrage in the Philippines.

The Philippines has filed a historic case against China's claims over the South China Sea with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. 

A hearing addressing China's objections to the case has been set for July. –