NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar (AP) — Vietnam and the Philippines pushed for stronger action to confront China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea in the first regional summit Sunday hosted by Myanmar, which is hoping to demonstrate the progress it’s made since emerging from a half-century of brutal military rule.
A standoff between Chinese and Vietnamese ships near the Paracel Islands put a fresh spotlight on long-standing and bitter maritime disputes.
The stakes are high – the South China Sea is one of the world’s most important shipping lanes, rich in fish and believed to contain significant oil and gas reserves.
However, some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are wary of upsetting their political and economic relationship with their giant neighbor and regional powerhouse. A draft of the closing statement to be read by host Myanmar, obtained by The Associated Press, made no direct mention of China.
Foreign ministers gathering Saturday jointly expressed concern and called for self-restraint, but Vietnam and the Philippines both made it clear they wanted firmer action.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said he intended to raise his country’s territorial dispute with Beijing, while calling for support to resolve its conflict through international arbitration.
“Let us uphold and follow the rule of law in resolving territorial disputes in order to give due recognition and respect to the rights of all nations,” Aquino said in a statement . “We cannot rely just on dialogues between only two nations to settle issues that affect others in the region.”
Vietnam has protested China’s oil rig deployment close to its shores, and sent a flotilla to confront about 50 Chinese vessels protecting the facility.
It says the islands fall within its continental shelf and a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. China claims sovereignty over the area and most of the South China Sea – a position that has brought Beijing in conflict with other claimants, including the Philippines and Malaysia.
“This is the first time China unilaterally brings and installs its oil rig deep into the continental shelf and exclusive economic zone of an ASEAN country,” Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dzung said, according to a draft of his speech.
He said that maritime security and free navigation of the strategic waterway were now “under serious threat.”
He asked that concerns about the South China Sea be included in the ASEAN’s final statement.
The United States has criticized China’s latest action as provocative and unhelpful.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded by saying that the issue should not concern ASEAN and that Beijing was opposed to “one or two countries’ attempts to use the South Sea issue to harm the overall friendship and cooperation between China and ASEAN,” according to state-run Xinhua News Agency.
Leaders were also expected to discuss tensions on the Korean Peninsula – reiterating their commitment to a region “free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction,” according to the draft final statement.
They discussed, too, the need to effectively tackle threats like cybercrime, human trafficking, climate change, as well as food and energy security, human rights issues and efforts to an ASEAN economic community.
This was the first time Myanmar was hosting a summit of Southeast Asian heads of state since it joined the 10-member bloc in 1997.
Previously, it was passed over because of its poor human rights record. Though much work needs to be done, it has implemented sweeping political and economic reforms since ruling generals handed over power to a quasi-civilian government in 2011.
ASEAN is comprised of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Associated Press writer Oliver Teves in Manila, Philippines contributed to this report.