Brunei Foreign Minister and Prince Mohamed Bolkiah with His Excellency Wang Yi, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China. (Brunei Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, file photo)
Four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with claims in the South China Sea failed to take a united stand on China’s growing aggressiveness after Brunei opted out of a recently held meeting in Manila.
Brunei was a no-show in the 1st ASEAN Claimants Working Group Meeting held at Pan Pacific Hotel in Manila Feb. 18, and is expected to skip the second round in Malaysia on March 25,diplomatic sources privy to the talks said.
The meeting, however, saw a more engaged Malaysia, which has abandoned its former passive attitude toward China’s military activities in the region.
Observers attribute Malaysia’s change of heart to the recent military exercises by China in oil-rich James Shoal, 80 kilometers from Malaysian Coast but is the farthest border of China’s much-disputed 9-dash line map. Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman himself flew to Manila late January and to Brunei to confirm the Feb. 18 meeting.
President Beningo S. Aquino visited Kuala Lumpur last week and discussed the Spratlys, among other concerns.
The Philippines has taken China to arbitration court over the 9-dash line. Its claim against China will get a boost if Malaysia and Vietnam interplead in the international tribunal, but both countries are at present mum on the issue of arbitration against China.
Of the 10 ASEAN members, four—Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam— have territorial claims in the mineral-rich Spratlys in the South China Sea, about 80 percent of which is being claimed by China with its controversial 9-dash line map. Taiwan is also a claimant.
Of all six claimants of the Spratlys group of islands in the South China Sea, only Brunei does not occupy any land feature there.
The Philippines maintains troops on eight islands and a shoal, Malaysia is present in four, Vietnam holds 22, China controls eight, and Taiwan maintains a garrison on Itu Aba, the largest island.
It was not the first time that Brunei avoided a meeting among the South China Sea claimants that the Philippines has been striving to convene.
At the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Retreat in Bagan, Myanmar on January 16 and 17, Brunei also did not join the foreign ministers of Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines in a pull-aside meeting to discuss how to get the claimants meeting started.
Brunei’s Foreign Minister His Royal Highness Prince Mohamed Bolkiah chose to meet his Vietnamese counterpart instead on Jan. 16.
“Brunei is not comfortable to sit in a meeting to discuss the South China Sea territorial issues” at the level of His Royal Highness, the Prince, a diplomatic source said.
For the Feb. 18 meeting in Manila, Brunei informed the Philippine government through its embassy that it will be sending a representative from the foreign ministry.
The delegations from the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam waited for the Brunei delegate until 30 minutes before the meeting began. When not even someone from the Brunei Embassy in Manila showed up, the table, chairs and Brunei’s flag were removed.
But the three other countries agreed to continue persuading Brunei to join the four-claimants meetings which may eventually be opened to China.
At the Feb. 18 meeting, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam expressed concern over China’s recent moves in the disputed area. Malaysia, in particular, resented the “spin” that China makes in their bilateral meetings and exchanges.
“China often distorted news for their benefit,” one of the participants said.
The three countries agreed to cooperate in negating the controversial 9-dash line, which is the subject of the complaint filed by the Philippines before the United Nations Arbitral Court.
But the Philippine case against China before the UN Arbitral Court was not discussed in the Feb. 18 meeting.
“It will be very useful but it will not be fatal if they (Malaysia and Vietnam) are not there (in the Philippine case), but it will be useful if we have friends joining our case,” Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza said.
The Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia also clarified that last month’s claimants meeting as a mechanism will not replace the ASEAN-China dialogue mechanism such as the Joint Working Group Meeting on the Implementation of the Declaration of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The four-claimants mechanism will exist alongside with ASEAN and will complement it.
The ASEAN-China Joint Working Group is tasked to discuss the formulation of a Code of Conduct as agreed in the DOC.
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for truth.)