MANILA, Philippines – Despite U.S. and Asian calls for self-restraint and new impetus for the resolution of territorial disputes involving China, a high-profile Asian security summit ended over the weekend where it began, with no solution of the rifts in sight.
China dismissed a new U.S. proposal for a freeze on hostile actions that could heighten tensions in the disputed South China Sea, leaving Washington unable to overturn an impression that it can do little to back up allies at odds with Beijing over the contested waters and islands. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, remains divided and is similarly unable to pressure China to back down.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was overseeing multiple crises unraveling in Iraq, Gaza and Ukraine as he flew to Myanmar's capital of Naypyitaw to attend the annual ASEAN Regional Forum, Asia's premier security gathering of 27 Asian and Western countries, including China.
Under Kerry's proposal, China and the four ASEAN members that have long disputed strategic South China Sea territories — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — should voluntarily halt provocative actions, including occupying new islands or reclaiming land to enlarge naturally submerged reefs. Taiwan, which is not an ASEAN member, also contests the territories.
The Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, backed Kerry's proposal and also urged the full enforcement of a 2002 accord that also called for an end to tension-producing actions as well as long-term arbitration that could eventually resolve the claims under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
ASEAN, a key battleground for influence between the U.S. and China, generally has backed American calls for an easing of tensions, including the start of negotiations for a binding regional "code of conduct" to govern activities involving conflicting claims. But China has resisted, and progress on the code has been slow.
"The United States and ASEAN have a common responsibility to ensure the maritime safety of critical global sea lanes and ports," Kerry told foreign ministers at the meeting. "We need to work together to manage tensions in the South China Sea and manage them peacefully and also to manage them on a basis of international law."
As expected, China reacted coldly, saying that the tensions were being overblown.
"Someone has been exaggerating or even playing up the so-called tension in the South China Sea," Kerry's Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, told reporters. "We do not agree with such a practice, and we call for vigilance in the motives behind them."
ASEAN foreign ministers later issued a joint statement saying they would ask lower-level diplomats to intensify consultations with China on ways to enforce the 2002 agreement in its entirety, including two provisions that embody the U.S. and Philippine calls for self-restraint and a halt to hostile actions, and an early start of the negotiations on a legally binding code.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario expressed frustration over the non-enforcement of the 2002 accord.
The accord "has been there since 2002. We keep talking about it but nobody follows it," he told reporters in Manila on Monday.
The meetings in Myanmar were the first chance for top diplomats from countries involved in the territorial disputes to gather after China deployed a deep-sea oil rig in May near islands claimed by Vietnam.
China's withdrawal of the rig in mid-July removed an irritant but left a legacy of anger and strained relations with Vietnam and questions among China's other neighbors about its long-term strategy.
China's decision to withdraw the rig helped lower temperatures ahead of the ASEAN gathering, where China highlighted major economic plans, including a proposal to set up an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to provide financial support for regional infrastructure projects.
Without any concrete outcome on the disputes, it wasn't clear who left with an upper hand.
Kerry brushed aside the Chinese resistance to his proposal, saying the U.S. was "very pleased" that ASEAN foreign ministers had included positive language about it in their statement.
"I think we made the point that we came to make," Kerry said.
Several U.S. officials said the ASEAN statement was a setback for China because Beijing would have preferred that the subject not be addressed at all.
However, political scientist Zhu Feng, a regional security expert at the School of International Studies at China's Peking University, said the Southeast Asian nations showed they had no appetite to collectively go against China.
"The reason why the ASEAN countries did not follow America's call is that they do not wish to drive China into a corner or to put it on trial," Feng said. "Those are not among the solutions to the problem. Nor do they reflect the complexity of the objective reality. The outcome of the ASEAN meetings is such that it tells the United States it is unnecessary to get involved in the South China Sea issue with such a high profile."
In a commentary Monday, China's state-run Xinhua News Agency warned against too much involvement by Washington.
"It is a painful reality that Uncle Sam has left too many places in chaos after it stepped in, as what people are witnessing now in Iraq, Syria and Libya. The South China Sea should not be the next one," Xinhua said.
Associated Press writers Ken Moritsugu in Tokyo and Ian Mader in Beijing contributed to this report.