NAYPYIDAW — Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) chair Burma said the 10-member regional bloc will issue a joint statement calling for restraint over disputes in the South China Sea, after a Chinese oil rig planted close to a disputed island ignited a confrontation between Vietnamese and Chinese naval vessels earlier this week.
Burma is hosting its first ever major Asean meeting this weekend, with the former pariah state welcoming regional government leaders and foreign ministers to the 24th Asean Summit in the capital Naypyidaw.
Following the foreign ministers meeting on Saturday afternoon and Burma’s Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin told a press conference that the ministers had agreed to draft a single joint statement expressing concern over this week’s escalation of tensions.
“We are concerned about the recent situation in the South China Sea, we urge to both parties to solve this dispute very peacefully,” Wunna Maung Lwin said. “We foreign ministers have discussed the South China Sea and reached consensus on a statement.” It was not immediately clear when the statement would be released or what its content will be.
The Wall Street Journal reported quoted Singaporean Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam as saying the statement would “express our concern at the turn of events, and ask for everyone to act in accordance to international law, including the [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea].”
As host Burma has been immediately forced to address spiraling regional tensions during the 2-day meeting. Asia’s most complicated and potentially destabilizing issue spun out of control as Asean member Vietnam and China traded angry accusations following the incident.
The South China Sea region has rich fishing ground and oil and gas reserves, and important maritime shipping routes run through it. An increasingly assertive China has become embroiled in territorial disputes with Taiwan and Asean members Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia, which are trying to resist the territorial claims of their powerful northern neighbor.
Earlier on Saturday, Burmese government spokesman Ye Htut was reluctant to comment directly on this week’s incident, saying only that he expected progress would made on the Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea—a set of rules that would guide maritime conduct between Asean members and China.
“Related countries will submit reports on the latest situation to the foreign ministers meeting and also at the summit,” he told reporters. “The Declaration of Conduct for the South China Sea is already approved by the Asean leaders, so the Code of Conduct will be discussed in these meetings.”
“The good thing is that Burma has a very good relationship with China and also with Asean member countries, so we will try to [reach an agreement] on the Code of Conduct very soon,” he said.
The DoC agreement from the early 2000s states all China-Asean disputes should be resolved peacefully. The regional bloc has, however, made little progress on completing a Code of Conduct agreement with China.
Vietnam and the Philippines, the two Asean nations most affected by territorial disputes, have been vocal supporters of the initiative, but China prefers to resolve any dispute bilaterally. In 2013, a Joint Working Group of was formed in which China and Asean would further discuss the CoC.
Agreeing on a joint statement on the South China Sea disputes has proven difficult for Asean in the past, as Vietnam and the Philippines have sought a strong-worded statement, while members seen as close to China, such as Laos and Cambodia, want to be careful not to offend to Beijing.
Burma’s leadership will now be scrutinized for any perceived favoritism towards China. Under the previous military regime, China was Naypyidaw’s most important ally, providing diplomatic, economic and military support in return for access to natural resources. Although relations between the two have cooled since a quasi-civilian government took over in 2011, China remains Burma’s most important trade partner.
Government spokesman Ye Htut said chairman Burma was not under pressure from its northern neighbor to act in its favor over the South China Sea disputes. “China has not tried to influence us on this issue, there is no pressure on us,” he said.
Asean government leaders will be arriving in Naypyidaw in the course of the day, with the notable exception of Thailand’s former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra who was ousted by a Constitutional Court this week, further deepening Thailand’s protracted political crisis.
The government leaders will meet for the Asean Summit in Naypyidaw’s brand new and heavily guarded Myanmar international Convention Center on Sunday. The Asean Parliamentarians meeting and the Asean People’s Forum, a meeting of regional civil society groups, is also being held in Naypyidaw this weekend.
Burma’s democratic transition has been marred by outbursts of anti-Muslim violence and a crisis in Arakan State, where since 2012 Rohingya Muslims have clashed with Arakanese Buddhists. The crisis displaced 140,000 Rohingya and sent tens of thousands fleeing in small boats through the Bay of Bengal in an effort to reach Malaysia.
Burma has been criticized over a range of serious rights abuses against the Muslim minority, with Asean members such Indonesia voicing concern over the treatment of the group. Ye Htut said, however, that the issue would not be broached during official discussions.
“Our internal conflict involving Bengalis in Rakhine State will not be on the Asean agenda this time. It will be [discussed] during the retreat session. If other country leaders want discuss that issue, we will listen,” he said, referring to the Muslim group as “Bengalis.” The decision is in keeping with Asean’s long-standing policy of non-interference in domestic affairs of members states.
Burma joined Asean in 1997 but was passed over for the chairmanship in 2006 due to political repression in the country. After Thein Sein’s government introduced political reforms and released Aung San Suu Kyi and thousands of political prisoners, Asean awarded Naypyidaw this year’s chairmanship.
Burma has declared the theme of its chairmanship—in the penultimate year before the ambitious Asean Economic Community (AEC) is supposed to come into effect—“Moving Forward in Unity to a Peaceful and Prosperous Community.”
Preparations for the AEC next year will be another key issue on the agenda this weekend. Ye Htut said work on the AEC was “80 percent completed,” but noted that significant challenges remained.
Ye Htut said Burma’s first Asean chairmanship would provide a boost in the country’s international standing and bring economic and political benefits to the government as it seeks to implement further reforms.
“We can benefit from this summit by gaining political prestige on the world stage. We couldn’t take the chairmanship in 2006 due to the political situation at that time, until the new government started its work,” he said.