From August 2-8, ASEAN leaders and their dialogue partners, including rivals China and the United States, will have a series of key security meetings in the Philippines. Casting a shadow upon these meetings and haunting the corridors will be recent developments regarding the South China Sea. Indeed, it is no coincidence that tensions are flaring and diplomatic lobbying is intensifying as the meetings draw nigh. Their results may indicate whether China or the United States has the diplomatic upper hand, and if ASEAN can unite and play a serious role in the mitigation of these issues – or is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
While there will be other important issues on the agendas, the focus of many observers will be on ASEAN countries’ positions on the South China Sea issue — with the U.S.-China dialectic being the proverbial elephant in the room.
China’s recent behavior is likely to be front and center. Last week it was reported that China threatened to attack Vietnam’s military installations on features it occupies in the South China Sea if Vietnam did not halt its lessee Repsol from drilling in Block 136-03 — which China also apparently claims. This has not been confirmed by either Repsol or any Vietnamese official. Nevertheless, when asked if China had pressured Vietnam on this matter, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang seemed to confirm the report by saying that “China urges the relevant party to ease the relevant unilateral infringing activities and with practical actions safeguard the hard-earned positive situation in the South China Seas.” Lu did not define “practical actions” but this could mean sharing — such as joint development of resources.