By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) – The South China Sea is not on the agenda and should not be discussed at a major summit between Asian and European leaders in Mongolia at the end of the week, a senior Chinese diplomat said on Monday.
The Asia-Europe Meeting, or ASEM, will be the first important multilateral diplomatic gathering after the July 12 ruling by an arbitration court hearing a dispute between China and thePhilippines over the South China Sea.
Tensions and rhetoric have been rising ahead of the ruling in the Dutch city of The Hague, a case which China has refused to recognise or participate in. Beijing says the court has no jurisdiction and China cannot be forced to accept dispute resolution.
China has repeatedly blamed the United States for stirring up trouble in the South China Sea, where its territorial claims overlap in parts with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou signalled discussion of the South China Sea would not be welcomed at the event, which happens once every two years, as it’s designed to discuss issues between Asia and Europe.
“The ASEM leaders summit is not a suitable place to discuss the South China Sea. There are no plans to discuss it there on the agenda for the meeting. And it should not be put on the agenda,” Kong told a news briefing.
However, Beijing-based diplomats involved with preparations for ASEM say it is inevitable the South China Sea dispute will be raised at the summit, which is expected to be attended by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The United States has conducted freedom of navigation patrols close to Chinese-held islands, to Beijing’s anger, while China has been bolstering its military presence there.
Kong said that if there are tensions in the South China Sea it is because certain countries outside the region have been putting on shows of force and interfering.
“There is no reason to get the South China Sea issue into this ASEM meeting citing freedom of navigation and security interests as causes of concern. It’s got no leg to stand on,” he added.
FILIPINOS TOLD “DON’T TALK POLITICS”
Ahead of the ruling, Philippine nationals in China this weekend received mobile phone text messages from their embassy, warning them not to discuss politics in public and to avoid engaging in discussions on social media. They were advised to carry their passports and residency permits with them at all times and to contact the embassy or Chinese police if there are any untoward incidents.
China says much of the building and reclamation work it has been doing in the South China Sea is to benefit the international community, including for civilian maritime navigation.
The official China Daily said on Monday that China will soon start operations of a fifth lighthouse in the South China Sea, on Mischief Reef.
Taiwan is also watching the case closely.
Its single holding of Itu Aba is the biggest feature in the Spratlys and the one some analysts believe has the strongest claim to island status and an exclusive economic zone.
“If the ruling touches on our sovereign rights we will respond strongly,” said deputy foreign minister Leo C.J. Lee to lawmakers in a parliamentary committee session on Monday.
The coast guard, which directly oversees Itu Aba with the support of the military, will not “soften” its defence of the island, coast guard chief Lee Chung-wei added.
(Additional reporting by J.R. Wu in Taipei and Benjamin Kang Lim in Beijing; Editing by Lincoln Feast)