KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysia’s leader says Southeast Asian countries will avoid direct confrontation with China but will push for a quick conclusion to a binding code of conduct to govern behavior in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
Prime Minister Najib Razak said Monday the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ non-confrontational approach to the dispute has been effective in keeping tensions at bay. He said at an ASEAN leaders’ summit that the bloc will pursue constructive engagement with China.
Najib also indirectly rejected calls by the Philippines for Asean to stand up to China. Manila warned that Beijing was poised to take “de facto control” with its land reclamation in the area.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers that if China’s construction of artificial islands on reefs claimed by other countries is allowed to be completed, then Beijing will impose its claim over more than 85 percent of the sea.
“The massive reclamation activities undertaken by China pose a threat to the security and stability of the region, cause irreparable damage to the marine environment and threaten the livelihood of many of our peoples,” Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said earlier in a speech at the meeting.
Aquino added that ASEAN must have political will and unite against “activities that exacerbate tensions” in the region. Manila has warned that China will likely wait to complete its reclamation work before it agrees to conclude the code of conduct.
“While noting the progress made in the consultations / negotiations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, we urged for the consultations to be intensified, to ensure the expeditious establishment of an effective COC.”
Malaysia, chair of this year’s summit, was to issue a statement later Monday saying that it shared serious concerns raised by some ASEAN members on Chinese land reclamation in the sea.
The reclamation activities have “eroded trust and confidence, and may undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea,” it warned in the statement, a draft of which was seen by The Associated Press.
Malaysia called for “self-restraint in the conduct of activities” and said no parties should resort to use of threat or force.
China, Taiwan and Asean members Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, , which includes busy sea lanes and rich fishing grounds, and is believed to have large undersea deposits of oil and natural gas.
Beijing has defended its reclamation, saying it is Chinese territory and the structures are for public service use and to support Chinese fishermen.