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Philippine flag flutters from BRP Sierra

Reuters/Erik de

Manila (AFP) – The United States, Australia and Japan on Monday
denounced Beijing’s island-building and militarisation of
the South China Sea, in contrast to the increasingly tepid
response from Southeast Asian nations over the festering issue.

China claims nearly all of the sea, through which $5 trillion in
annual shipping trade passes and which is believed to sit atop
vast oil and gas deposits.

Its sweeping claims overlap with Vietnam, the Philippines,
Malaysia and Brunei — all members of the 10-nation Association
of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc — as well as Taiwan.

But in recent years Beijing has managed to weaken regional
resistance by courting some ASEAN members.

On Sunday Beijing scored a coup when ASEAN ministers issued a
diluted statement on the dispute and agreed to Beijing’s terms on
talks during a security forum which the bloc is hosting in

China insists that a much-delayed code of conduct between it and
ASEAN members over the disputed sea must not be legally binding,
a demand to which Southeast Asian countries have so far

But in a joint statement after their foreign ministers met on the
sidelines of the same gathering, the US, Japan and Australia
delivered a noticeably sterner rebuke to Beijing.

Criticising ongoing “land reclamation, construction of outposts,
militarisation of disputed features” in the disputed sea, the
trio said any code of conduct must be “legally binding,
meaningful and effective”, a demand noticeably absent from the
ASEAN statement.

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The three nations also called on China and the Philippines to
respect last year’s international arbitration ruling which
dismissed much of Beijing’s claim in the sea.

The Philippines had been one of the most vocal critics of China
and filed a case before a UN-backed tribunal. 

But after the election of President Rodrigo Duterte last year,
Manila has played down the verdict in favour of pursuing warmer
ties with Beijing, a move that led to offers of billions of
dollars in investments or aid from China. 

Critics of China have accused it of assiduously dividing ASEAN,
which operates on a consensus basis, with strong-arm tactics and
chequebook diplomacy, enticing smaller countries in the bloc such
as Cambodia and Laos to support it.

Vietnam, which had been pushing for stronger language in Manila,
has been largely left to fend for itself since Duterte’s China

The US, Australia and Japan oppose Beijing building giant
artificial islands that could be used as military bases, fearing
it will eventually establish de facto control over the waters.

China insists the three countries should stay out of what it says
are purely bilateral disputes with its neighbours. 

On Sunday Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned any interference from
“outside parties” could jeopardise negotiations over the code of

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