US Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday said he was "very satisfied" that South-east Asian countries had issued a joint statement that championed the rule of law, and the omission of a reference to a high-profile arbitration case on the South China Sea did not detract from the statement's importance.
The joint communique issued at the 49th Asean Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Vientiane on Sunday reaffirmed the countries' commitment to maintaining peace and respecting legal and diplomatic processes based on the principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
It did not mention the recent ruling by a five-man Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague which struck down China's claims to over two-thirds of the South China Sea.
"If you read the communique paragraph per paragraph, I was very satisfied that the communique clearly referenced all legal rights, all legal decisions, all legal processes, without mentioning the arbitration," Mr Kerry said at a news conference in Manila.
China has rejected the ruling, widely seen as a sweeping victory for the Philippines which initiated the arbitration case. It has been preventing the 10-member Asean from issuing any joint statement referencing the verdict.
A Reuters report said a deadlock was broken only when the Philippines withdrew its request to mention the ruling in the face of resolute objections from Cambodia, China's closest Asean ally.
Mr Kerry said he saw the statement as a diplomatic tack meant to push forward talks to resolve disputes over the South China Sea. "Sometimes, frankly at a meeting like that and in diplomacy, you don't always have to include every single word that may, in fact, sometimes make it harder to get to the dialogue that you want to get to," he said.
He also said it is "impossible" for a landmark verdict striking down China's expansive claims to the South China Sea "to be irrelevant".
Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay, meanwhile, disputed reports that the omission of the South China Sea ruling in the communique was a "diplomatic victory" for China. "I pushed for the inclusion and mentioning of the arbitral tribunal award. But we knew there was a middle ground," he said.
Even if the ministers did not mention the outcome of the case, they "had in mind the disputes in the South China Sea", he insisted.
Meanwhile, the head of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, has told a forum in Tokyo that the United States believes South China Sea claimants should use the July 12 decision as a "new opportunity to renew efforts to address their maritime disputes peacefully".
Speaking at the third Japan-US Military Statesmen Forum, he cited India's response to a 2014 arbitration case brought by Bangladesh over a maritime border dispute as "an example of a great power acting responsibly", leading to a "more peaceful and prosperous region".
•Additional reporting by Walter Sim in Tokyo.