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South China Sea Spat Looms Over Asean Meeting in Laos

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VIENTIANE, Laos — Southeast Asian foreign ministers will gather here in the coming days with their counterparts from the U.S. and China, making the tiny nation the next diplomatic battleground in a rising standoff over the South China Sea.

It will be the first regional meeting since an international arbitration tribunal on July 12 rejected China’s claims to most of the South China Sea and its creation of artificial islands. The ruling was a victory for the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, which claim parts of the strategic waters.

Beijing rejected that decision and said it won’t change its strategy. This week, China said it has begun sending long-range bombers to regularly patrol parts of the sea, adding that it recently flew a military patrol near Scarborough Shoal, rich fishing grounds also claimed by the Philippines, a U.S. ally. China also said it wouldn’t halt the construction of artificial islands in the Spratlys archipelago, an area claimed by multiple countries.

The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations whose foreign ministers are meeting here starting this weekend, and the U.S., whose military regularly exerts its right to sail and fly through the sea, have tread lightly in the wake of the tribunal ruling. They have issued reserved statements calling for respect for international law but haven’t pushed China to withdraw its claims.

All this means the agenda in Laos—the host of a series of Asean meetings this year that will culminate with a leaders’ summit including U.S. President Barack Obama in September—is more unsettled than usual. The group has long been divided on the South China Sea, with small nations such as Cambodia preventing it from uniting on the issue, and others fearful of offending one of their largest trade and investment partners.

When Cambodia hosted Asean meetings in 2012, China successfully lobbied its communist neighbor to avoid mentioning the dispute. The year’s main meeting of foreign ministers broke up without a joint communiqué, a staple of Asean events for more than 40 years.

It remains to be seen whether Laos, a country that borders China and has hosted enormous Chinese investment in recent years, will similarly steer the Asean agenda away from a thorny issue for China.

Regional diplomats say China has been lobbying multiple nations to avoid making official statements mentioning either the tribunal ruling or international law in the context of the South China Sea. They also say some Asean nations are pushing back.

I. Derry Aman, director for dialogue partners and inter-regional cooperation at Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry, said Thursday that Jakarta will push for discussions on the South China Sea at the meetings, and to include mention of the disputed region in a concluding statement.

“This is a negotiation, so the main thing is that we have something on the South China Sea issue in the joint communiqué,” Mr. Aman said. He pointed to the Asean summit in Cambodia in 2012: “We will have to avoid that kind of situation again.”

Winning support for international law, or specifically for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was cited at the tribunal, would be key for nations that are focusing now on protecting waters around their sovereign territory. Under Unclos, to which China is a party, nations enjoy rights to waters extending 200 nautical miles from their shores.

Manila said this week it was focused on trying “to fully realize the EEZ rights granted by the Arbitration Court” through bilateral talks with China.

China doesn’t have a formal role in the meeting’s early stages this weekend, but on Monday morning will hold talks with Asean as a whole, as will representatives from the U.S., the European Union, India, Japan and others. On Tuesday, China, the U.S. and other nations are scheduled to join Asean in the East Asia Summit foreign ministers meeting and the 27-member Asean Regional Forum, a security meeting.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will attend the meetings—and directly afterward head to Manila for talks with new President Rodrigo Duterte.

One person with knowledge of Asean members’ planning said some diplomats have high hopes for the meeting, including an “unprecedented” statement on regional geopolitics in a post-tribunal-ruling world.

Regional experts are skeptical.

“I think we’d be lucky to see Asean refer obliquely to the ruling in its final statement, never mind forging new pathways,” said Ian Storey, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

As for moving on talks with China, the coming days won’t be the meeting for it, Mr. Storey added. “China wasn’t ready to compromise before the ruling and certainly isn’t now,” he said.

Source: Wall Street Journal (Ben Otto)