Shift in ASEAN against Chinese buildup


ASEAN members are stepping up criticism of China’s island-building in the South China Sea. © Getty Images/Kyodo

SINGAPORE — Malaysia, Indonesia and others are stepping up criticism of China’s island-building in the South China Sea, abandoning previously neutral stances and potentially swinging the balance of opinion in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations against the regional heavyweight.

     Defense ministers from ASEAN members and observer nations including China, the U.S., South Korea, Australia and Japan will meet in Malaysia on Tuesday and Wednesday. It will be the first major international conference since the U.S. sailed a warship within 12 nautical miles of China’s man-made islands — an area that Beijing considers territorial waters. Both powers have supporters and opponents within ASEAN. Thus the talks will likely be the stage for the first public confrontation between the U.S. and China over the issue, as well as for campaigns to win over ASEAN as a whole.

     The bloc has so far kept its official position on the South China Sea buildup vague, seeking to maintain favor with both the U.S. and China. The 10 members themselves are split into three camps over the issue. The Philippines and Vietnam are embroiled in territorial conflicts with China in the area, and have thus sided firmly with the U.S. Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have remained neutral. The remaining five — Thailand, Brunei, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia — have all sided with China, to varying degrees.

     But as China’s expansion has moved into higher gear, previously neutral nations have begun pushing back. Indonesian President Joko Widodo spoke out against the building of military facilities on the man-made islands during talks Monday with U.S. President Barack Obama. “The two presidents expressed their shared concern about recent developments in the South China Sea that have increased tensions, eroded trust, and threatened to undermine peace, security, and the economic well-being of the region,” said a joint U.S.-Indonesia statement released after the meeting.

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