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ASEAN Talks: Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia All Defy Call to Ignore South China Sea Issue

China is attempting to strongarm the countries forming the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) not to discuss its aggressive expansion of control in the South China Sea, issuing statements arguing that the venue is “improper” for such a topic. The Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore, all who object to China’s expansion, strongly disagree.

Given that the ASEAN conference, taking place in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, has united numerous countries with complaints against China for building military facilities and artificial islands in international waters and keeping non-Chinese fishermen out, participants appear eager to discuss the matter and condemn Chinese expansion. The Philippines, joined by American Secretary of State John Kerry, is expected to formally protest the South China Sea expansion on Tuesday.

“As a means of de-escalating tensions in the region, the Philippines fully supports and will proactively promote the call of the United States on the ‘three halts’ — a halt in reclamation, halt in construction and a halt in aggressive actions that could further heighten tensions,” said Philippines foreign secretary Albert del Rosario. US State Department spokesman Mark Toner confirmed that Kerry is also expected to speak on the matter on Monday, calling ASEAN “a forum in which critical security issues need to be brought up and discussed.”

Malaysian officials, including Prime Minister Nijab Razak, have echoed the sentiment of using ASEAN for such a platform. Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman asserted on Monday that “Asean can and should play a vital part in effecting an amicable settlement” on that particular dispute. “Above all we must be seen to address this issue peacefully and cooperatively. We have made a positive start but we need to do more,” he concluded.

Joining the chorus of voices approving of using the ASEAN platform to condemn China’s incursions upon other nations’ sovereign territory are Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam, telling reports that the situation “cannot be ignored” and ASEAN’s Secretary-General Le Luong Minh, who attacked China for “eroding the very trust and confidence…between Asean and China” with its activity in the region.

The lone voice opposing the discussion of the South China Sea disputes at the ASEAN forum, apparently, is China itself. In a strident column, state media outlet Xinhua called such a discussion “improper.” “Those multi-lateral forums have never been an appropriate place for discussing specific bilateral disputes, and attempts to do so can not help resolve the underlying issues as proven by past experiences,” the column reads, arguing that the dispute is one between the Philippines and China only. China also warns in the column that bringing up the subject “will undermine the generally stable situation in the region which has not come about easily, and runs counter to the measurable progress achieved during the 9th China-ASEAN senior officials’ meeting in Tianjin, China, days ago.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi echoed these statements, stating in Beijing before traveling to Malaysia that ASEAN was not “the appropriate place for discussing specific bilateral disputes.”

Heightening the urgency of neighboring states to discuss this plan is news that China, despite claiming in May that it would “soon” complete constructions in the South China Sea, has continued to create artificial islands and develop military platforms in waters that neighbors say have historically not belonged to Beijing. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, China has begun to construct a second air landing strip just 14 kilometers from the Philippines’ Spratly Islands, threatening Philippine sovereignty.

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