KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - The Philippines called on its Southeast Asian neighbours to unite in urging China to halt reclamation of land in the South China Sea, but the call failed to raise widespread support ahead of a regional summit.
China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas. Its claims overlap with those of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Recent satellite images suggest China has made rapid progress in filling in land in contested territory in the Spratly islands and in building an airstrip suitable for military use and that it may be planning another.
In a speech to foreign ministers ahead of the official opening of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario did not name China directly but said its “northern neighbour” was quickly advancing with land reclamation.
“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?” Rosario asked.
The territorial dispute is seen as one of Asia’s hot spots, posing risks that it could result in conflict as countries aggressively stake their claims.
China has said the recent construction is meant to serve civilian purposes such as fishing and search and rescue.
At the ministers’ meeting on Sunday morning, only the Philippines and Vietnam spoke about the South China Sea dispute, while the other states were more concerned about setting up a single time zone, an ASEAN diplomat told Reuters. There was no consensus on the time zone.
ASEAN summit host Malaysia is likely to steer clear of criticising China, it biggest trade partner, a draft end-statement seen by Reuters showed.
Anifah Aman, Malaysia’s foreign minister, told a news conference later on Sunday that some members had raised concerns over the dispute.
“It would be much appreciated if China can stop work and sit down with ASEAN states to discuss and find a solution,” Anifah said. “We have to solve the problem among ourselves before we go and discuss with China.”
Philippine President Benigno Aquino and Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung are set to meet on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit on Sunday night to firm up a strategic partnership deal and discuss the South China Sea issue.
The official opening of the ASEAN summit is to take place in Kuala Lumpur on Monday.
Del Rosario said the reclamation would probably be finished before China agrees to a legally binding code of conduct over the South China Sea. China and ASEAN agreed on an informal code of conduct in 2002.
ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh told Reuters in an interview that it has become urgent for ASEAN and China to conclude the code early.
Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Writing by Praveen Menon; Editing by Nick Macfie and Jane Baird