China’s foreign ministry on Tuesday said it is encouraged by recent statements made by the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) regarding ongoing disputes in the South China Sea.
Maritime disputes between China on the one hand and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan on the other have caused tensions in the region and often led to a war of words between Beijing and Washington.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has said that diplomacy is the best and only means to resolving any regional disputes and welcomes any such initiative from other countries.
The latest ASEAN communique, which came at the end of its summit in the Philippine capital, Manila on Sunday, appeared to remove phrases such “land reclamation and militarization”.
“Since last year, with the joint efforts of China and ASEAN countries including the Philippines, temperatures in the South China Sea situation have gone down and things have eased up. I think this accords with the interests of countries in the region,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told journalists.
In 2015, the Philippines had won an International Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruling that China’s historic claims to most of the South China Sea were invalid.
China called the ruling a farce and at the time President Xi Jinping said he would not accept any proposition or action based on the ruling issued unilaterally, and initiated by the former Philippine government.
However, in August 2016, new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he would steer relations with China toward mutual benefit and bilateral cooperation and that he would discus the South China Sea territorial dispute in a bilateral fashion with his Chinese counterparts.
Duterte made good on his promise when he visited Beijing in October 2016 and the two countries began to boost their mutual ties.
But just three months ago, the picture was a bit different, particularly between China and the US.
On February 4, the Chinese Foreign Ministry rebuked US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis during his trip to Japan for stating that a treaty between Japan and the US also covered a group of islands, known as Diaoyu, which lie in the South China Sea.
In Japan, the islands are called Senkaku. Washington says it recognizes Japan’s “administration” of the dispute islands.
He said that defense of the islands fell within Article 5 of the US-Japan defense pact.
US media had speculated that the Pentagon would carry out naval exercises in the South China Sea, but Japan has already said it would not take part in such a move.
“The Diaoyu Island and its adjacent islets have been an inherent part of Chinese territory since ancient times, which is a unchangeable historical fact,” Lu said at the time.
Beijing claims 90 per cent of the South China Sea, a maritime region believed to hold a wealth of untapped oil and gas reserves and through which roughly $4.5 trillion of ship-borne trade passes every year.