MORE nations expressed concern at China’s rising maritime assertiveness with Japan, Australia, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations expressing “concerns” about tensions in the region.
Senior officials of Japan, Australia and India met in Tokyo on Friday to stress the importance of maintaining the rule of law in the South China Sea and expressing “strong concerns” about tensions in the region amid China’s rising maritime assertiveness.
“We shared strong concerns about moves to unilaterally change the status quo that would lead to destabilization in the region,” Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki told reporters after talks with his Australian and Indian counterparts.
The three-way meeting comes as China’s deployment of an advanced surface-to-air missile system has stoked concerns the country is pursuing militarization in the South China Sea, adding to tensions already heightened by Beijing’s massive and fast-paced reclamation works in the sea.
China is also boosting its presence in the Indian Ocean, which provides essential maritime traffic access for the transportation of oil, gas and other resources from the Arabian Sea.
“We also shared the need to establish a new rule in the region to secure the rule of law and the freedom of navigation,” Saiki said.
Saiki was referring to the ongoing discussions between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to conclude the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, a legally binding document that could be used to resolve deadlocks, disputes and tensions in the sea.
Peter Varghese, secretary of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Indian Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar took part in the three-way meeting, the second of its kind following a meeting in India last June.
The diplomats also discussed their responses to North Korea, following its nuclear test last month and long-range rocket launch earlier this month.
Given the likelihood that the UN Security Council may soon adopt a fresh resolution that would expand sanctions on North Korea, the three officials also agreed to steadily implement the sanctions to prevent North Korea from further promoting its nuclear development, Saiki said.
The trilateral framework is part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to promote a “security diamond” strategy connecting Japan, Australia, India and the US state of Hawaii to safeguard maritime interests stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific.
Abe introduced the concept in December 2012 to counter Beijing’s military buildup and perceived attempts to change the status quo in the South China and East China seas.
Ahead of the three-way talks, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told a press conference, “The trilateral cooperation covering the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean contributes to the peace and stability of the region.” “Japan seeks to further strengthen trilateral ties,” he added.
In Vientiane, officials said China’s recent artificial island-building and fortification of its garrison in the South China Sea is among the pressing political and security challenges that Asean foreign ministers will discuss when they meet in the Laotian capital.
One diplomat said Asean ministers are “seriously concerned” by recent and ongoing developments in the South China Sea.
Specifically, Asean sources said the ministers will have frank discussions about the land reclamation and escalation of activities in the disputed sea, saying “these assertive moves erode trust and confidence, increase tension and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”
Charles Jose, a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs, said the Philippines will focus on maritime security, saying that China’s construction of islands in the disputed waters has heightened tensions in the South China Sea.
Jose said that reports claiming Beijing has positioned surface-to-air missiles in the disputed territory in the Paracel Islands chain are a cause of concern.
“We are expressing concern over these developments, including the reported missiles on Woody Island,” Jose said.
“Of course all these things raise our concern and its effect on freedom of navigation, over-flight and unimpeded flow of commerce. In this meeting we will continue to express our concern with the developments in the South China Sea.”
Laos, this year’s Asean chairman, is expected to issue a press statement at the end of the day-long retreat Saturday.
“There are ongoing discussions and consultations on whether to include in the press statement a line that says that ministers reaffirmed their commitment to non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities in the South China Sea,” an official source said.
As of Thursday night, an Asean official said the draft press statement still contains paragraphs on maritime security and the South China Sea “that may or may not be there [in the final statement].”
Like in past meetings, the ministers are expected to stress the importance of maintaining peace, security, stability, and freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea.
Asean officials said the ministers will again “emphasize the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation” in the disputed sea.
The ministers are also expected to underscore the importance of the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that China and the 10-member Asean signed in 2002, according to the officials.
Another Asean official said that Asean wants “substantive development” and “an expeditious establishment” of the code of conduct, a binding code aimed at reducing the risk of conflict in the disputed sea that Asean and China have been trying to hammer out since efforts to reopen talks began in 2012.
Competing claims to the South China Sea have for decades been a source of tension in the region.
China’s recent moves to conduct massive land reclamation in the sea have further escalated tensions, leading even non-claimants like the United States to voice concerns.
The overlapping territorial and maritime disputes involving China and four Asean members—Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam—have divided Asean on how to deal with the issue.