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China blamed for ASEAN U-turn on South China Sea
Manila (AFP) June 16, 2016

US fighter planes arrive in Philippines for training mission
Manila (AFP) June 16, 2016 - US fighter planes have arrived in the Philippines for a training mission and operations to ensure access to the disputed South China Sea, the US Navy said Thursday.

The Philippines' longtime ally deployed the aircraft to train Filipino pilots as Manila remains locked in an increasingly tense maritime dispute with Beijing.

The US Navy made a veiled reference to so-called freedom of navigation operations in which Washington sends a ship or plane to pass by a Chinese-claimed island to reject its claims of sovereignty.

"Growler aircraft will support routine operations that enhance regional maritime domain awareness and assure access to the air and maritime domains in accordance with international law," the US Navy said in a statement, referring to the EA-18G Growler airborne electronic attack planes.

Manila has been improving its defence ties with the United States, its former colonial ruler, to help boost its ability to defend its territory.

The Philippines hosts the temporary detachment at the former US airbase of Clark, a two-hour drive north of Manila.

The American detachment is composed of four aircraft and about 120 personnel, coming over a month after annual war games with the Philippines.

The US deployed similar detachments throughout the Asia-Pacific for exercises with other allies, according to the statement.

Philippine Air Force spokesman Colonel Araus Robert Musico told AFP the mission was not directed toward any country but would boost the capacity of one of Asia's weakest armed forces.

"The advantage to us is we can interoperate with US troops. We've also done a lot of missions for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, how to respond when there's a disaster in open seas," he said.

In April, the United States said it launched joint South China Sea patrols with the Philippines as China builds artificial islands in the disputed waters to press its claim over the territory.

The Philippines is awaiting a ruling from a UN-backed tribunal against China's claim to most of the South China Sea.

Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam also have competing claims to parts of the sea, a key waterway for global commerce.

Chinese pressure was blamed Thursday for a stunning diplomatic U-turn by Southeast Asian Nations that saw them retract a statement sounding alarm over Beijing's island building in the South China Sea.

The chaotic events at the end of a meeting of foreign ministers from China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Tuesday have led to allegations of bullying by Beijing.

The document, released by ASEAN member Malaysia and described as a joint statement from the bloc, warned developments in the hotly contested South China Sea could "undermine peace, security and stability".

The statement specified "land reclamation" as a source of tension, a clear reference to China's massive island building activities where it is trying to cement a claim to almost the whole sea.

But just hours later, Malaysia said the grouping was retracting the statement for "urgent amendments", but offered no reason. Various participants have since given conflicting explanations over what happened.

An ASEAN diplomat who was present at the meeting in the Chinese city of Kunming told AFP that China had put the screws on some Southeast Asian nations to get them to withdraw their support.

"The usual factor, pressure from China," said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, when asked why unity crumbled.

"I suspect the two countries that opposed the statement were Cambodia and Laos."

- 'Crude, arrogant' -

Singapore's Straits Times newspaper also reported on Thursday that the joint statement was "scuttled by the Chinese, who lobbied its friends in the grouping to block" it.

"Malaysia releasing it was a manifestation of the extreme frustration of the original five ASEAN members plus Vietnam at the particularly crude and arrogant behaviour of the Chinese," the Straits Times reported an ASEAN official as saying.

The Philippines also said Thursday that there had originally been unanimous support within ASEAN for the strongly worded statement.

"By the time the meeting ended, there was an agreement among ASEAN foreign ministers. They agreed on the text of the ASEAN statement and they agreed it would be released," Philippine foreign affairs spokesman Charles Jose told reporters in Manila.

Jose said the statement was then retracted after the meeting had ended and most foreign ministers, including the Philippines' Jose Rene Almendras, had left the venue to start returning home.

Jose would not be drawn on whether Chinese lobbying was to blame, but insisted Malaysia's initial release had not been in error.

Asked why Malaysia gave the statement to the media, Jose said: "That was the point where there was consensus among ASEAN to have that statement. So by the time it was released, there was agreement."

Indonesia said on Wednesday the release -- titled "Media statement by the ASEAN foreign ministers" -- was issued by mistake, and that it was only meant to be a "media guideline".

China has responded to the controversy by insisting there had not been unanimous support for the original statement

"It is clear that if ASEAN wants to issue an official statement, such statement will be based on consensus," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said on Wednesday.

- ASEAN disunity -

The events have been widely seen as another example of ASEAN's inability to present a united front toward China as it dramatically expands its presence in the waterway.

China claims nearly all of the sea -- home to some of the world's most important shipping routes and of vast military importance.

ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan, have competing claims to parts of the sea.

While the Philippines and Vietnam have been particularly critical, Laos and Cambodia have been generally regarded as preferring to side with their giant neighbour and benefactor.

In 2012, ASEAN foreign ministers failed to release a joint statement for the first time at the end of their annual gathering, with the Philippines blaming event host Cambodia for blocking criticism of China.

Laos this year has the rotating presidency of ASEAN, and will host a series of meetings over the coming months in which the South China Sea will inevitably be a hot talking point.


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Previous Report
Indonesia cites error as ASEAN meeting ends in confusion
Jakarta (AFP) June 15, 2016
Indonesia said Wednesday that a bold statement from Southeast Asian nations raising concern over Beijing's island-building in the South China Sea was issued in error, as a meeting over the issue ended in confusion. In a statement released late Tuesday by Malaysia's foreign ministry, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) warned that recent actions in the disputed waterway had "th ... read more

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