Asean overcomes communique impasse, urges non-militarisation in South China Sea

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (sixth from left) and Asean foreign ministers linking arms during a meeting in Manila on Aug 6, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

MANILA (REUTERS) - South-east Asian foreign ministers ended an impasse on Sunday (Aug 6) over how to address disputes with China in the South China Sea, issuing a communique that called for the avoidance of militarisation and noting concern about land reclamations in the area.

The South China Sea has long been the most divisive issue for the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean), with China's influence looming large over its activities. Some countries are wary about the possible repercussions of defying Beijing by taking a stronger stand.

Asean failed to issue the customary statement on Saturday, over what diplomats said was a disagreement about whether to make oblique references to China's rapid expansion of its defence capabilities on artificial islands in disputed waters.

China is sensitive to even a veiled reference by Asean to its seven reclaimed reefs, three of which have runways, missile batteries and radars according to some experts.

The communique late on Sunday takes a stronger position than an earlier, unpublished draft, which was a watered-down version of one issued last year in Laos.

The agreed text "emphasised the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint".

It said that after extensive discussions, concerns were voiced by some members about land reclamation "and activities in the area which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tension and may undermine peace, security and stability".

Also on Sunday, the foreign ministers of Asean and China adopted a negotiating framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea, a move they hailed as progress but was seen by critics as a tactic to buy China time to consolidate its maritime power.

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