Cartoon by Roni Santiago
Cartoon by Roni Santiago

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, speaking at a recent annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Kuala Lumpur, warned that China is poised to take de facto control of the South China Sea, but his call for a common response was rejected by Malaysia.

China has been doing reclamation works on islands within 20 miles of Philippine principal islands, and her growing territorial assertiveness has caused concerns among its neighbors such as the Philippines and Japan.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have territorial stakes in the South China Sea, but Chinese authorities claim almost all of it.

In issuing the warning, Secretary Del Rosario pointed to China’s land reclamation for military bases and airstrips on disputed reefs. “Is it not time for ASEAN to say to our northern neighbor that what it is doing is wrong and that the massive reclamations must be immediately stopped?  If not now when, when China captures your capitals?” Del Rosario asked his fellow ministers. “Is it not time for ASEAN to finally stand up for what is right?”

However, Malaysia rejected the idea of any slightest response that could antagonize China. “We must avoid any action or speech that would be counter-productive and bring us further apart, either amongst ourselves or with (mainland) China,” Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said.

“I don’t think ASEAN would like to be given an ultimatum, and by the same token I don’t think China would like to be given an ultimatum.”

Anifah said, “ASEAN member-states want to see that this matter should be settled amicably,” suggesting that China might allow joint use of the artificial islands someday.

With Beijing’s immense trade and diplomatic leverage, ASEAN has a history of failing to agree on strong responses over the issue on behalf of its members.

In connection with the territorial dispute in the South China Sea, U.S. President Barack Obama had said Washington is concerned that China is using its “sheer size and muscle” to push around smaller nations in the disputed sea, but his statement drew a swift rebuke from Beijing.

We share President Obama’s observation that China is employing a bullying tactic to intimidate her neighbors. It is obvious that several ASEAN countries are succumbing to the intimidation. This has further emboldened China to push its territorial assertiveness.

Yes, an amicable settlement is the ideal solution, but what we would like to see for the meantime is for ASEAN “to stand up for what is right” regarding the China issue.

If it cannot even do this, ASEAN would be remiss in its mission of protecting the interests of its members. In such case, we may just as well abolish ASEAN.

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