'No' to any ultimatum to China on reclamation

'No' to any ultimatum to China on reclamation
(L to R) Myanmar's Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin, Philippines' Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario, Singapore's Foreign Minister K Shanmugam, Thailand's Foreign Minister General Tanasak Patimapragorn, Vietnam's Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, Malaysia's Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, Laos' Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, Brunei's Second Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Lim Jock Seng, Cambodia's Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, Indonesia's Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and ASEAN secretary-general Le Luong Minh pose for a photo at the Foreign Ministers Meeting for the 26th ASEAN Summit

ASEAN will not issue any ultimatum to China, Malaysia's Foreign Minister has said, even as Manila called for the grouping to tell Beijing to stop its reclamation works in disputed areas of the South China Sea.

Datuk Seri Anifah Aman told reporters, however, that it would be "much appreciated" if China ceases work in the disputed waters, citing the Declaration of Conduct signed by Beijing and ASEAN states "not to cause any unnecessary tensions and to exercise maximum restraint" in one of the world's busiest shipping routes.

China has overlapping claims in the resource-rich sea with several ASEAN states, including the Philippines and Vietnam.

"ASEAN doesn't like to be given ultimatums, by the same token I don't think China would like to be given an ultimatum.

Everybody realises the importance of keeping this area stable and peaceful," he said at a press briefing yesterday.

He added that negotiations on an elusive Code of Conduct would be held in May and June.

Mr Anifah said Malaysia - the ASEAN chair this year - believed in negotiation instead of confrontation, and suggested that even "if the reclamation is completed", ASEAN could share the new facilities with China.

He added that "it would be much appreciated if China can stop work and sit down with ASEAN members to discuss and find a solution", while acknowledging that the Philippines had the right to "issue any statement they wish and we respect them for that".

The Philippines had earlier yesterday warned that China had reclaimed enough land in two reefs in the Spratly island chain in the South China Sea to muscle the Philippines out of the area and that Beijing will soon take "de facto control" of the disputed waters unless ASEAN stands up to its much larger neighbour.

"The threats posed by these massive reclamations are real and cannot be ignored or denied," Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said in a speech to his fellow foreign ministers.

He warned: "(China) is poised to consolidate de facto control of the South China Sea.

"Is it not time for ASEAN to say to our northern neighbour that what it is doing is wrong and that the massive reclamations must be immediately stopped?"

A new set of high-resolution images - taken on April 13 by satellite mapping firm DigitalGlobe and released on Saturday by the current affairs website The Diplomat - shows that in just 10 weeks from Feb 6, the Chinese have built an island on Subi reef spanning over 3km.

"The dimensions and shape of the landfill, which is still under way, are compatible with a potential airstrip 3,300m long," defence analyst Victor Robert Lee wrote in The Diplomat.

China is also expanding its landfill across the northern rim of Mischief Reef, along a relatively straight portion with dimensions that can also support a landing strip 3km long.

Subi is just 25km south-west of the 37ha Thitu Island, where the Philippines administers a town of more than 300 civilians and soldiers. Thitu is 480km from the western Philippine province of Palawan.

Mischief is only 32km west of Second Thomas Shoal, where a platoon of Filipino marines mans a World War II wreck the Philippines beached in 1999.

General Gregorio Catapang, the Philippine military chief, had warned that should China build airstrips on Subi, Mischief and a third reef, Johnson South, the Philippines would be denied access by sea or air to both Thitu and Second Thomas.

Already, with a blockade by Chinese surveillance vessels around Second Thomas, the Philippines has largely had to airlift supplies to its marines on the shoal.

Thitu, which has an airstrip, can still be reached by boat or plane. But in a sign that China is tightening the noose around Thitu, a Chinese vessel on April 19 flashed a powerful light and radioed a Philippine reconnaissance plane flying over Subi.

China has said Philippine planes had "illegally flown over Chinese waters on numerous occasions recently", and that it was "untrue" that a powerful light was used against the plane involved in the April 19 incident.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung were scheduled to meet last night, on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit, to firm up a strategic partnership deal and discuss the South China Sea issue, reported Reuters.

rdancel@sph.com.sg shannont@sph.com.sg

This article was first published on April 27, 2015.
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