• Kyodo

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Asian and European leaders pledged Saturday to adhere to the principle of trying to resolve maritime disputes in line with international law, but failed to mention high tensions in the South China Sea in a statement that summarized their two days of discussions on security and economic concerns.

The chair’s statement omitted reference to specific territorial issues or a U.N.-backed tribunal’s recent ruling that rejected China’s long-standing position on the disputed sea, mainly due to Beijing’s persistent opposition, according to senior officials with knowledge of the situation.

It said they “agreed on the critical importance of confidence building measures, of refraining from the use or threat of force and of disputes being resolved in accordance with principles of international law, the U.N. Charter and the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

The Asia-Europe Meeting summit in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar was closely watched as it was the first gathering of numerous world leaders since the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague concluded Tuesday that China’s sweeping claims to historical and economic rights in most of the South China Sea have no legal basis.

Senior officials from the European Union and such countries as Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam pressed until the last minute for the South China Sea issue to be mentioned in the statement, according to the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Some leaders, including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, raised the issue during their discussions, telling his counterparts that it is a “common concern” of the international community.

“The rule of law is the basic principle we have to hold fast to,” Abe said. “I strongly hope that the concerned countries will comply with the decision and that will lead to a peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea.”

The case brought by the Philippines in 2013 to challenge China’s expansive claims in the disputed sea has been seen by many major countries as a test of Beijing’s commitment to a rules-based international order.

But immediately after the court announced the ruling, China, as widely expected, angrily rejected the verdict, saying it is “null and void” and without “binding force.”

Chinese officials have even termed the case as a “completely political farce under the pretext of law” and argued that the decision by the tribunal was manipulated by countries such as Japan and the United States, which have no claims in the South China Sea.

On Saturday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang also said at the summit that “under no circumstance will the arbitration award exert any impact on China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea.”

But the magnitude of the news of an apparent terror attack in the French resort city of Nice, which killed at least 84 ordinary citizens, and a military coup attempt in Turkey, which both coincided with the biennial summit, was so big that much attention was diverted from the South China Sea issue.

The leaders spent the largest amount of time on how best to combat the rise of terrorism and violence, according to the officials.

Noting that “terrorism constitutes a serious threat to international peace, security, stability and development,” the statement said.

“Turkey is a key partner for the European Union. The EU fully supports the democratically elected government,” European Council President Donald Tusk said at a news conference along with several other leaders.

“We called for a swift return to Turkey’s constitutional order,” Tusk said. “The situation in Istanbul looks under control, but in fact it is still far from stabilization.”

“The key question will be what kind of Turkey comes out of this crisis, and how Turkey manages to deal with the consequences will be crucial not only for Turkey but for the whole region,” he said.

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