US Secretary of State John Kerry has said he supports the resumption of talks between China and the Philippines over their competing claims in the South China Sea, even as Australia, Japan and the US jointly urged Beijing to abide by a July 12 arbitral tribunal ruling that went overwhelmingly against it.
Speaking in Vientiane yesterday on the sidelines of a series of annual talks between Asean foreign ministers and their counterparts from their dialogue partners, Mr Kerry said he hoped "we turn our collective focus now to try to turn the page, to the question of how do we resolve this in the peaceful and diplomatic way in which we have encouraged".
Overlapping claims by China, Taiwan and four Asean nations - Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei - have threatened regional stability. China, which lays claim to almost all of the strategic and resource-rich waterway, has created artificial islands on which it has installed military facilities.
China has refused to recognise the July 12 outcome of the arbitration case brought by the Philippines, which invalidated its historical claim over the sea. Instead, Beijing called the process a "farce" and leaned on its allies within Asean to prevent the bloc - which operates by consensus - from taking a common stance on the issue.
The Chinese pressure was clear when Asean foreign ministers released their traditional post-meeting joint communique on Monday, with no direct reference to the arbitration. Instead, it expressed commitment to a "full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law".
The statement was in the opening section of the communique, instead of a special section on the South China Sea issue. Diplomats involved in drafting the communique described an arduous negotiation process over the reference.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay told reporters in
Vientiane he was "not concerned and not worried" about the omission.
The "arbitral tribunal has nothing to do with Asean. Nobody has taken sides for us", he said.
He also stressed that the dispute was not between China and the United States but China and the Philippines. "We would like to pursue bilateral relationships in so far as the peaceful resolution of the dispute is concerned that is between China and the Philippines," he said.
"The others are not concerned with that dispute."
Earlier on Monday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who had suggested that both countries engage in bilateral negotiations while disregarding the arbitration results, called for temperatures to be lowered. "It's time for all to come back to the right track," he said.
On Monday evening, Mr Kerry, alongside Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop, issued a joint statement that expressed "strong support for the rule of law" and called on China and the Philippines to abide by the tribunal's award, which is "final and legally binding on both parties".
Mr Kerry, who is due to meet Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila today, also noted China's readiness to talk to the Philippines.
"I would encourage President Duterte to engage in dialogue, in negotiation," he said.