Ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are concerned over China’s land reclamation projects in the South China Sea and have pledged to step up efforts to deal with what they see as a threat from China. Their statement came on Wednesday after the topic was brought up at a ministers’ retreat in Malaysia. "The retreat shared the concern raised by some foreign ministers on land reclamation in the South China Sea," Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said at a press conference following the two-day meeting, according to Channel News Asia. Anifah’s statement did not specify which countries raised the concerns.
The Philippines, however, issued its own statement at the end of the retreat. "The massive reclamation issue presents a strategic policy dilemma for ASEAN," Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said in a statement issued at the end of the ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting, according to Kyodo News. "Our inaction on this would undermine the principle of centrality, since we are unable to address in a unified and collective way such a critical issue in our own backyard."
“The ministers instructed senior officials to intensify efforts toward achieving the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and work vigorously toward the early conclusion of the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea,” Anifah said during the press conference.
Malaysia, which holds the rotating ASEAN chair position for 2015, has instructed Thailand, the designated country coordinator between ASEAN and China, to increase the frequency of meetings between the association and China. ASEAN has been trying to conclude the Code of Conduct agreement since the Declaration was first signed back in 2002. Progress has been slow, which some say is due to deliberate stonewalling by Beijing as it shores up its own claims in the South China Sea, according to Tokyo-based Asia-Pacific politics site The Diplomat.
Malaysia has thus far opted for diplomacy over confrontation with China in attempts to strike a balance between protecting its interests and preserving relationships with its major trading partner, reported Kyodo. The Philippines and Vietnam, however, have openly clashed with China over the land reclamation projects, according to The Diplomat.
Del Rosario said last week that Beijing was trying to construct islands around the reefs in the Spratly Islands, which has been hotly claimed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. He said that the artificial island could potentially hold fortified positions or even warships, which would defend China’s claims to the island.
China has dismissed the Philippines’ claims. “China always maintains that countries, big or small, are equal in international relations,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular briefing on Jan. 22, according to Channel News Asia. “We are opposed to big countries bullying small ones, and meanwhile, we believe that small countries cannot make trouble out of nothing.”