China on Sunday found itself on the receiving end of criticism from many Asia-Pacific leaders over its recent aggressive actions to enforce territorial claims to the South China Sea.
While leaders from the region, who gathered for an annual regional summit in Kuala Lumpur, spoke with one voice against terrorism, there remained wide differences between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and others over how best to ease current tensions in the disputed sea, according to officials who were at the scene.
At the East Asia Summit, involving leaders from 18 countries, also including India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines and the United States, Li reiterated China’s long-held position that its territorial disputes should be resolved bilaterally, urging outsiders not to meddle in them, according to the officials.
When almost the same clutch of leaders took part in their two-day meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in the Philippines through Thursday, China succeeded in keeping them quiet about territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
But this time in the Malaysian capital, where China was represented by Li instead of more powerful President Xi Jinping, that was not the case.
The South China Sea situation dominated their discussions. One of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said China received “verbal attacks from all corners during the meeting.”
Almost all the leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, raised concerns over the South China Sea, a key shipping route thought to hold significant oil and gas deposits, and said the time has come to lower tensions heightened by China’s land reclamation activities, according to the officials.
Abe said, regardless of military or civilian purposes, any country must avoid taking actions that would change the status quo and run counter to a rule-based order, his aide told reporters.
Abe implicitly urged China not to militarize the South China, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroshige Seko said.
Without directly naming China, Abe voiced “serious concerns” over the reclamation activities, saying they should be regarded as “unilateral” and not based on international law.
A draft of a statement to be issued by the chairman of the summit, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, showed that the leaders will reaffirm “the importance of maintaining peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea.”
“We took note of the serious concerns expressed by some leaders over recent and ongoing developments in the area, including land reclamation, which have resulted in the erosion of trust and confidence among parties,” said a copy of the draft, obtained by Kyodo News.
In recognition of the fact that China’s continuation with its rapid creation of man-made islands in the contested waterway is a threat to freedom of navigation in the region, the United States last month sent a guided missile destroyer within the 12-nautical-mile territorial limit claimed by Beijing around Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago.
China, which claims almost the whole of the South China Sea, has sharply objected to the patrol, saying it was an “illegal” incursion into its waters and urged the United States to refrain from taking provocative action.
China has overlapping claims in the sea with Taiwan and four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Aside from the maritime disputes, seen as stemming from China’s jockeying with the United States for leadership of Asia in a broader perspective, discussions of the leaders centered on their cooperation to combat terrorism, following Friday’s deadly assault on a hotel in Mali, according to the officials.
The assault came a week after a spate of shootings and explosions in Paris, claimed by Islamic State militants, killed 130 people. (PNA/Kyodo)