VIENTIANE, Laos, July 24 (UPI) — ASEAN foreign ministers are beginning their annual negotiations in Laos amid intensive and growing frustration over the gridlock created by China’s stance on territorial ownership of islands in the South China Sea.
The diplomats will decide whether to change the rules and the heart of decision-making for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as a result of China’s rejection of a court finding which shot down that country’s claims to most of the territory in the South China Sea, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The 10-members of ASEAN are gathered in the Laotian capital for the first time since the Phillipines got its legal victory over China July 12. A U.N.-backed arbitration panel ruled that China’s claims over the islands have no legal basis.
Still, China has refused to acknowledge the ruling and has been building up its military presence in the South China Sea in recent years, even constructing artificial islands in the area.
Four other nations besides China claim territory in the resource-rich South China Sea, including Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei, AsiaOne.com reported. The waters are rich in fish, as well as in oil and gas reserves and see $5 trillion in trade each year.
China has put pressure on other countries it trades with to stop the diplomatic bloc from recognizing the court ruling.
ASEAN members are taking great care in how they handle the issue, since China is the bloc’s largest trading partner, with economic clout. Two-way trade between member nations totalled $472 billion last year.
Analysts believe the groups hesitancy to comment on the court ruling means it will continue to remain quiet.
“I don’t think that ASEAN will somehow miraculously produce a statement on the South China Sea,” said Sun Yun, with the U.S.-based think tank Stimson Centre. That would be “holding the bar too high” requiring the consensus of all members.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers from China and other large Asian powers, plan to meet with the group this week.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi described a side meeting her country held as a good faith measure to remind ASEAN members of what the group stands for. “We need as a whole [for] ASEAN to voice the importance of protecting our home,” Marsudi said. “We must guard this home, and Indonesia will be on the front lines. We will not let others ruin our home.”
The countries in ASEAN had not reached any consensus Sunday on a statement addressing the South China Sea. More talks are scheduled to take place Monday in an attempt to find a common position before the ASEAN Regional Forum, the banner event for the three-day summit.