South-east Asian leaders issued a statement yesterday reiterating their call for the "peaceful resolution of disputes" in the South China Sea, half a day after the closing of the Asean Summit in Manila last Saturday.
They took a softer stance in the statement, despite pressure from some diplomats at the summit to include references to China's island-building and weapons deployment in the strategic waterway.
It also did not touch on an international tribunal's ruling on a case filed by the Philippines that had struck down Beijing's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea.
"We reaffirmed the importance of the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercising self-restraint in the conduct of the activities, and avoiding actions that may further complicate the situation, and pursuing the peaceful resolution of disputes, without resorting to the threat or use of force," the statement said.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose country is the Asean chair, was supposed to read out the statement last Saturday night, but it was released only 12 hours later.
RESOLVING DISPUTES WITHOUT FORCE
We reaffirmed the importance of the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercising self-restraint in the conduct of the activities, and avoiding actions that may further complicate the situation, and pursuing the peaceful resolution of disputes, without resorting to the threat or use of force.
SOUTH-EAST ASIAN LEADERS, in a statement issued after the Asean Summit.
An earlier draft seen by The Straits Times contained a mention of Asean leaders seeking a halt to actions "such as land reclamation and militarisation, that may further complicate the situation" in the South China Sea. But this was taken out in the final statement.
China has built sprawling islands on seven reefs in the Spratly island chain in the southern half of the South China Sea. At least three of the islands have air strips, as well as surface-to-air missiles, surface- to-surface artillery and other weapons systems.
A diplomatic source told The Straits Times that one delegation had spoken about the reference to China's actions in the South China Sea during the summit. This delegation also e-mailed its comments after the Philippines circulated a draft of the statement.
As the Philippines is the current Asean chair, Mr Duterte ultimately determined what went into the statement.
Mr Duterte, who has improved his country's relations with China since taking office, said last Thursday that it was pointless to discuss China's island-building in the South China Sea and the tribunal's ruling, calling both a "non-issue".
In his news conference last Saturday, he supported efforts to conclude a framework for a "code of conduct" designed to prevent conflicts at sea among the South China Sea claimants instead. He said the aim was to complete the framework "at the very least before the end of this year".
"We recognised the long-term benefits that would be gained from having the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability and sustainable development," Mr Duterte said in the statement.
This was not the first time that an Asean statement has left out the tribunal's ruling against China's claims in the South China Sea - the same happened last year in Laos at a foreign ministers' meeting.
Agreeing with the Asean chair's statement, Mr Wilfrido Villacorta, former Philippine ambassador to Asean, told Bloomberg that closer relations between China and Asean have led to a more cohesive Asean and promised "to prevent war and escalated conflict in our part of the world".
However, for many analysts, including Mr Richard Heydarian, a political analyst with the Manila- based De La Salle University, Mr Duterte's softer approach, while pleasing China, is creating some grumbling within Asean. The Philippines' departure from its "robust position" on the South China Sea just a year ago "is creating deep frustration among major (Asean) founders", he told The Straits Times.