Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, in addressing the South China Sea dispute, said yesterday that Asean leaders were asking for a code of conduct (COC) to avoid conflicts in the strategic waterway.
"That's about it. No terms of reference, except that we want the code of conduct enacted by, at the very least, before the end of this year, so that everybody would feel comfortable sailing there. If not, then it remains to be a flash point," said Mr Duterte, whose country is the current Asean chair.
His remarks came at an evening news conference to wrap up the Asean leaders' summit. But instead of reading out the chairman's statement, he took questions from reporters. He said the statement would be posted on Asean's website and e-mailed to reporters. As at 1am, there was no sign of the expected statement.
In a draft statement seen earlier in the day, Asean leaders were expected to express "serious concerns" over an "escalation of activities" in the South China Sea, and again call for a halt to "land reclamation and militarisation" in the disputed sea.
"We took note of the serious concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments and escalation of activities (in the South China Sea), which may further raise tensions, and erode trust and confidence in the region," it said.
During the summit, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told fellow Asean leaders "we have common interests in maintaining peace and stability, ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight, and in the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law".
"Any mishaps at sea could easily escalate into conflicts, and threaten regional peace and stability," he said. "Therefore, we are happy that the situation on the ground has improved, and Asean member states and China are making progress towards a framework on the code of conduct... to be finalised by mid-2017," he added.
He later said in an interview with Singapore media that "the temperature is not as hot as last year's".
He said progress has been made, with "practical measures" like the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea and hotlines between Asean and China. Hopes are also high that Asean can conclude the framework on a COC by June, he said, adding: "So there is some progress."
Mr Duterte, in the draft statement, said Asean leaders sought to "avoid actions, such as land reclamation and militarisation, that may further complicate the situation".
Diplomatic sources said China wanted this phrase omitted in the statement, but four Asean member states disagreed. China has been extremely sensitive to any references by Asean to islands it has built on seven reefs in the Spratly island chain, and to suggestions that by putting runways and weapons systems on these islands, it was "militarising" the South China Sea.
Diplomats, though, sought to toughen the Asean chair's statement, which is meant to reflect the views of all Asean leaders, especially as it already ignored an international tribunal's ruling on a case filed by the Philippines in 2013 striking down Beijing's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea.
Mr Duterte, who has been warming his country's once frosty ties with China, said on Thursday it was pointless to discuss China's island- building in the disputed sea and the ruling, calling both a "non-issue".