Beijing, Manila clash again at Asean-China meeting

Ties between Manila and Beijing have soured further, even as top ASEAN and Chinese diplomats meeting in Beijing tried to look past the South China Sea territorial disputes to find new ways to strengthen their decade-long strategic relations.

The foreign ministers who gathered in Beijing took pains to emphasise that the maritime dispute should not define the broader ASEAN-China relationship, which had brought economic benefits to both sides.

But even as they spoke, a falling-out was taking place on the sidelines.

Manila said Beijing withdrew an invitation on Thursday for President Benigno Aquino to visit a trade fair in the southern Chinese city of Nanning, in an apparent snub for his comments on the territorial dispute. But Beijing said it had never invited him in the first place.

China has overlapping claims in the resource-rich sea with four ASEAN states - the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei - and Taiwan. Manila has further angered China by seeking United Nations arbitration, defying Beijing's insistence on bilateral negotiations.

A Philippine government statement said Mr Aquino will not make a visit to the China-ASEAN Expo as scheduled on Tuesday, the Associated Press reported. "The President has decided not to proceed... taking into consideration China's request for the President to visit China at a more conducive time," he added. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Beijing never issued an invitation to Mr Aquino.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi addressed the touchy maritime issue at a press conference in Beijing on Thursday, the second day of the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers' Meeting. The maritime dispute should not define the broader relationship or affect overall relations, he emphasised.

However, in an apparent swipe at Manila, he said: "We do not believe that one individual's opinion should replace the current position of all ASEAN countries, nor do we think that one should compromise the overall interests of the two sides by pursuing one's own selfish interest."

Mr Wang added that compared to other regions in the world, the situation in the South China Sea is "stable", with freedom of navigation.

Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam told reporters on the sidelines of the meeting that China's partnership with ASEAN is multi- faceted and likely the strongest out of all its dialogue partners.

"In the scheme of things, in terms of what matters to people's lives and... the economy, you've got to look at it in perspective and really not run away with the headline on one issue," he said, referring to the maritime dispute.

While he acknowledged that tensions remain, he said progress has been made with formal talks on a binding code of conduct to manage such disputes scheduled in Suzhou next month. Later in the day, the ASEAN ministers called on Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and State Councillor Yang Jiechi.

esthert@sph.com.sg


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