MANILA, Philippines – Chinese pressure was blamed Thursday for a stunning diplomatic U-turn by Southeast Asian Nations that saw them retract a statement sounding alarm over Beijing’s island building in the South China Sea.
The chaotic events at the end of a meeting of foreign ministers from China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Tuesday have led to allegations of bullying by Beijing.
The document, released by ASEAN member Malaysia and described as a joint statement from the bloc, warned developments in the hotly contested South China Sea could “undermine peace, security and stability”.
The statement specified “land reclamation” as a source of tension, a clear reference to China’s massive island building activities where it is trying to cement a claim to almost the whole sea.
But just hours later, Malaysia said the grouping was retracting the statement for “urgent amendments”, but offered no reason. Various participants have since given conflicting explanations over what happened.
An ASEAN diplomat who was present at the meeting in the Chinese city of Kunming told AFP that China had put the screws on some Southeast Asian nations to get them to withdraw their support.
“The usual factor, pressure from China,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, when asked why unity crumbled.
“I suspect the two countries that opposed the statement were Cambodia and Laos.”