VIENTIANE, Laos — A summit of Southeast Asian countries issued a mild rebuke of China on Wednesday over its expansionist activities in the disputed South China Sea, and indirectly urged it to show restraint and not raise tensions.
In a victory for Beijing’s diplomatic, economic and military clout, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations couldn’t even get all of its 10 members to agree that China was responsible for building islands in the disputed and resource-rich sea.
A statement issued at the end of the ASEAN summit said in regard to the South China Sea, “We remain seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments,” without elaborating. It did not mention China by name.
The statement said the summit “took note of the concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”
China has recently developed shoals and coral reefs into seven islands with massive land reclamation work. Some of the islands have airstrips capable of handling military aircraft.
The use of the phrase “some leaders” in the statement underscores the fundamental problem ASEAN has had in dealing with China — not all of its members are willing to scold it. Cambodia remains firmly in China’s camp, as is Laos to a large extent, preventing any robust statement from the consensus-bound group.
The issue of ownership of territories in the South China Sea has come to dominate ASEAN summit meetings in recent years. China claims virtually the entire sea as its own, citing historical reasons. That has pitted it against the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, all members of ASEAN.
On July 12, an international arbitration tribunal ruled against China’s claims, saying they were illegal. It also rebuked China for forcibly preventing Filipinos from fishing in their traditional areas.
Beijing has rejected the ruling and continued its activities. The ASEAN statement made no mention of the tribunal.
On Wednesday, the Philippine government released what it says are surveillance pictures of Chinese coast guard ships and barges at disputed Scarborough shoal in the South China Sea.
It was an apparent attempt to publicize its concerns before ASEAN leaders met with Chinese Premier Li Kequiang in the Laotian capital in a side summit.
The Philippines is concerned that China may plan to turn the shoal into another man-made island.
But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China has not done anything to alter the circumstances surrounding the shoal.
“What I can tell you is that the situation in waters near Huangyan Island remains unchanged and China hasn’t made any new moves,” Hua said in Beijing, using the shoal’s Chinese name. “We should be highly alert against the mischief-making intentions of people who spread such groundless information in such situations.”
New Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has taken a more conciliatory approach than his predecessor to rebuild relations with China, and has said he would not raise the long-simmering territorial dispute in an adversarial manner that might upset Beijing.
Relations were severely strained under Duterte’s predecessor because of the conflict.
The U.S. military has also expressed concern over the possibility that China might turn Scarborough into another island, something that would give Beijing’s forces greater control over a swath of the South China Sea used as a passageway to the Taiwan Strait.