South-east Asian nations have avoided rebuking Beijing or mentioning an international court ruling against its claims in the South China Sea in their joint statement.
Foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of South-East Nations (ASEAN) gathered for a regional summit in the Laos capital, Vientiane.
The meeting was the first time since the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled there was no legal basis for Beijing’s claims to vast swathes of the South China Sea.
The Philippines and Vietnam both wanted the landmark ruling and a call to respect international maritime law to feature in the bloc’s communique.
China’s ally Cambodia opposed the wording on the ruling, diplomats said, throwing talks at the weekend into disarray.
The statement was finally released on Monday after Manila agreed to drop the reference to the ruling.
The communique referred instead to the need to find peaceful resolutions to disputes in the South China Sea in accordance with international law, including the United Nations’ law of the sea, to which the court ruling referred.
“We remain seriously concerned about recent and ongoing developments … on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region,” the communique said.
It was important to avoid militarisation of the region, and for freedom of navigation to be maintained, ASEAN said.
China thanks Cambodia for support
Four ASEAN members — Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei — have competing claims with Beijing over parts of the South China Sea.
Beijing said the July 12 court decision had no bearing on its rights in the sea, and described the case as a farce.
It publicly thanked Cambodia for supporting its stance on maritime disputes.
“China greatly approves of Cambodia and other ASEAN countries taking charge of impartiality and safeguarding fairness,” China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said.
The United States, allied with the Philippines and cultivating closer relations with Vietnam, has called on China to respect the court’s ruling.
It has criticised China’s building of artificial islands and facilities in the sea and has sailed warships close to the disputed territory to assert freedom of navigation rights.
China frequently blames the United States for raising tensions in the region and has warned regional rival Japan to steer clear of the dispute.
“We will not permit any outside force to seek to exploit and hype up the so-called South China Sea arbitration case and bring chaos to this region,” Mr Wang said.
Vietnam, China, Malaysia have eyes on the prize
Explore the conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea
|Rich in resources and traversed by a quarter of global shipping, the South China Sea is the stage for several territorial disputes that threaten to escalate tensions in the region.
At the heart of these disputes are a series of barren islands in two groups – the Spratly Islands, off the coast of the Philippines, and the Paracel Islands, off the coasts of Vietnam and China.
|Both chains are essentially uninhabitable, but are claimed by no fewer than seven countries, eager to gain control of the vast oil and gas fields below them, as well as some of the region’s best fishing grounds.
Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei have made claims to part of the Spratlys based on the internationally recognised Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends 200 hundred nautical miles from a country’s coastline.
|Based on the EEZ, the Philippines has the strongest claim on the Spratlys and their resources, with its EEZ covering much of the area.
However the lure of resources, and prospect of exerting greater control over shipping in the region, means that greater powers are contesting the Philippines’ claims.
|China has made extensive sovereignty claims on both the Spratlys and the Paracels to the north, based largely on historic claims outlined in a map from the middle part of the 20th Century known as the ‘Nine Dash Map’.
Taiwan also makes claims based on the same map, as it was created by the nationalist Kuomintang government, which fled to Taiwan after the communists seized power in China.
|Vietnam also claims the Spratlys and the Paracels as sovereign territory, extending Vietnam’s EEZ across much of the region and bringing it into direct conflict with China.
There have been deadly protests in Vietnam over China’s decision to build an oil rig off the Paracels.
One Chinese worker in Vietnam was killed and a dozen injured in riots targeting Chinese and Taiwanese owned factories, prompting 3,000 Chinese nationals to flee the country.
|EEZ can only be imposed based on boundaries of inhabitable land, and this has prompted all the countries making claims on the region to station personnel, and in some cases build military bases out of the water, to bolster their claim.
Building and protecting these structures has resulted in a series of stand-offs between countries in the region, each with the potential to escalate.
China has been leading the charge with these installations, and has deployed vessels to the region to protect their interests.
Chinese coast guard vessels have used a water cannon on Vietnamese vessels, as well as blockading an island where the Philippines has deployed military personnel.