China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks to media at a press conference during the 49th Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting. (EPA photo)
VIENTIANE – Southeast Asian foreign ministers failed Monday to make a united assessment on an international tribunal’s ruling that rejected China’s claims to almost the entire South China Sea.
Instead, the day after their one-day meeting in Vientiane, they stopped short of making a specific reference to the July 12 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
The ministers agreed in general terms that they are committed to resolving regional disputes through “legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea”.
Asean Secretary-General Le Luong Minh called the communique a victory – “in a sense” – even if it did not touch on an international tribunal’s ruling that rejected China’s claims to almost the entire South China Sea.
Speaking in a group interview, Mr Minh said he was upbeat that Asean was able to reaffirm its fundamental position that the South China Sea disputes should be resolved peacefully through legal and diplomatic processes.
After divisions increased among some members of the 10-member bloc over how to deal with territorial rows in the South China Sea, mostly because of Cambodia’s staunchly pro-Beijing stance, the ministers had to delay the issuance of the communique and senior officials working for them made last-ditch efforts to narrow differences.
The Philippines, in particular, pushed hard for the incorporation of Asean’s resolve to honour The Hague-based court’s ruling.
The ministers eventually reached a consensus on how to word the communique during special consultations Monday, just ahead of a separate meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
“We believe that the temperature surrounding the arbitration case should be lowered and now regarding the South China Sea issue it’s time for all to come back to the right track,” Mr Wang told a news conference after China’s meeting with the Asean ministers.
Mr Wang also described the Asean ministers’ views expressed over the South China Sea in the statement as having “no new wording” and said he confirmed that most Asean members do not take sides over the ruling.
Although it is a signatory to the 1982 United Nations convention, China has dismissed the ruling as “a piece of waste-paper” and insisted that disputes in the resource-rich body of water must be addressed by claimants through bilateral negotiations.
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