Despite China insisting that Asean meetings are not the right platform to discuss territorial disputes over the South China Sea, the regional bloc's foreign ministers "discussed the matter extensively" on the opening day of their three-day talks here, with Malaysia as chair stressing yesterday that the group "must do more" to resolve the issue.
The Philippines - which has asked an international tribunal to declare as invalid China's claims to virtually all of the South China Sea - led the way by backing a US proposal for a halt to all reclamation, construction and aggression in the potentially resource-rich waters.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said the reclamation work by China has "undermined the peace, security and stability in the South China Sea". Parts of the sea are also claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman had opened the day's events by saying the sea dispute was a "prime example" of how Asean should play a "vital part in effecting an amicable settlement".
"We have made a positive start. But we need to do more. Let this be the day we say we will do more," said Datuk Seri Anifah.
He confirmed that the ministers had talked extensively about the issue and explored "the possibility of putting in place preventive measures" to avoid future escalation.
But China repeated its stance yesterday that Asean was not the right forum for such talks, pointing instead to a joint working group as well as meetings of senior officials from both sides that Foreign Minister Wang Yi said had achieved important progress.
"The Code of Conduct should not be discussed at this Asean meet," he told reporters. The elusive COC is to govern territorial disputes in the South China Sea, but has seen little progress in the 13 years since it was jointly proposed by China and Asean.
Singapore's Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam also told reporters that the regional bloc cannot "wish away or pretend South China Sea" issues do not exist.
"We are not happy with the progress that has been made so far," he said, adding that the proposal of a moratorium for reclamation work in the key shipping lane had been discussed among Asean members without any consensus. Today, Singapore is taking over the role of country coordinator for Asean-China dialogue relations for the next three years.
China and the US have deep interests in South-east Asia, whose combined gross domestic product is worth US$2.4 trillion (S$3.3 trillion) - the seventh-largest in the world. The two powers will be represented in various meetings in Kuala Lumpur, with US Secretary of State John Kerry arriving today.
Mr Shanmugam also said that, in a bilateral meeting with Mr Anifah, he followed up on an issue relating to water supply "which is of importance to us". But aside from stating that "it has something to do" with pricing and water tariffs, he said he could only offer more details in Parliament later this month.