With the South China Sea disputes again proving divisive, Asean's foreign ministers yesterday put out a joint communique only at the eleventh hour, narrowly averting a repeat of the unprecedented non-issuance of such a statement at the July 2012 edition of the ministers' meeting.
This was even as Asean and China's top diplomats could not come to an agreement on a moratorium despite strong calls for halts to all reclamation and other activities in the hotly disputed waters.
Singapore's Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam had told reporters yesterday morning the communique was still a "work in progress" due to difficulties in reaching a consensus on lines concerning the disputed waters, most of which are claimed by China. The drafting was still ongoing yesterday evening as ministers went into the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), the final meeting of the three-day event. "The joint communique should've been done by yesterday. It is not finalised as of now. There are difficulties. The paragraph relating to South China Sea is causing some problems," he said.
The statement said the ministers "took note of serious concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations... which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace" in the South China Sea.
This falls short of calls by the Philippines for all claimants to adopt the United States' proposal for "three halts" - of reclamation, construction and militarisation, of land features in the sea.
Malaysia, as Asean chair, closed the meeting stressing "the importance for all parties concerned to stop all activities in the area".
On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi insisted China had stopped work in the sea, and told reporters they should "take a plane and have a look" at who is still building in the resource-rich waters through which US$5.3 trillion (S$7.3 trillion) in trade passes each year. Apart from the Philippines, the other Asean claimant states are Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. On Tuesday, when asked if China was building additional airstrips on its reclaimed islands, he had said: "Why don't you ask the Philippines?"
US Secretary of State John Kerry repeated his call for the three halts at a press conference yesterday, adding the US would not accept any curtailing of navigation and overflight in the area, which were "universal rights and must be respected by every nation, large and small".
He revealed that a number of the claimants made clear their willingness to refrain from further work in the area during the ARF - a security dialogue in the Asia-Pacific involving 27 members - but noted "no claimant can be expected to stop if others are disregarding this call".
With no certainty that tensions in the South China Sea will ease, Japan plans to give the Philippines three surveillance planes that Manila could use for patrols in the area, Reuters reported. The move would deepen Tokyo's security ties with the South-east Asian nation most at odds with Beijing over the disputed waterway.
Mr Kerry dismissed claims Malaysia had its human trafficking ranking upgraded to ensure progress on an Asia-Pacific trade pact, saying the country - where hundreds of bodies were found in "death camps" abandoned by people smugglers along its border with Thailand in May - earned its Tier 2 designation due to its stronger laws and efforts to prosecute traffickers.
"If there isn't a genuine effort... then next year, obviously I have the distinct ability to be able to make a different decision," he said.