South China Sea Issue Brushed Aside at ASEAN Summit

The disputed South China Sea was a minimal talking point at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as some countries looked to bury the hatchet.  

The Philippines, which hosted this year’s meetings, appears to be changing ties on the issue. “The South China Sea is better left untouched,” Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte told a business conference in Manila on Sunday. “Nobody can afford to go to war.”

Before Dutertre came to power, Maila was fiercely against China’s growing footprint in the region, where it has built and militarized artificial islands. Parts of the strategic waterway through which trillions of dollars in trade pass each year, are also contended by a number of countries including Vietnam and Malaysia.

However, Malaysia also appears to be edging closer to a pro-China stance as Beijing ignites economic influence throughout Southeast Asia in line with its Belt and Road initiative.

According to Philippine presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, United States President Donald Trump didn’t bring up the matter during the summit. Manila was Trump’s last stop on his tour throughout Asia. Trump has maintained that trade has been his main priority during his trip.

But even China is looking at calmer waters on the issue.

On Monday, the ASEAN-China summit concluded with nations agreeing to begin devising a code of conduct for the South China Sea in 2018 in order to ease tensions.

“We hope the talks on the code of conduct will bolster mutual understanding and trust,” Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told the summit, according to a transcript released by China’s foreign ministry on Tuesday.

China is known for fiercely shutting down its critics on the matter and for defending its claims to virtually the entire region. It even refused to respect a ruling by an international tribunal which de-legitimized China’s claims. That ruling, which had been led by The Philippines, was not brought up during the summit.

Recently, Trump has deployed NAVY warships into the South China Sea to defend freedom of navigation—a sight common during the Obama Administration. Those voyages were met with staunch criticism from China.

But Premier Li reportedly told his counterparts in Manila that China will assure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. China’s state-run news network Xinhua, even quoted Li as saying China wanted peace in the region  “more than any other country in the world.”

But not everyone is backing down without a fight. Vietnam continues to push for stronger territorial recognition in the South China Sea, which is one of the reasons China and other nations could not agree on whether the planned code of conduct should be legally binding.

President Trump has told Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang that he would be willing to act as mediator on the South China Sea issue if needed.

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