• Kyodo, Reuters

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Japan and the United States urged China on Thursday to resolve disputes in the South China Sea with the Philippines and other smaller neighbors in line with an arbitration ruling in July that invalidated Beijing’s claims to almost the whole of the sea.

During the East Asia Summit in Vientiane, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama urged China to comply with the ruling, which they said is “binding” on Beijing and Manila, the latter of which brought the arbitration case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, according to diplomatic sources.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, whose government has dismissed the July 12 ruling, also participated in the 18-nation meeting.

In a separate meeting earlier Thursday with the leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Obama said, “The landmark arbitration ruling in July, which is binding, helped clarify maritime rights in the region,” according to the White House.

“I recognize this raises tensions,” Obama was quoted as saying.

During the EAS, Obama and Abe coordinated with other leaders on efforts to advance a rules-based order in East Asia in the face of China’s construction and militarization of island outposts in the South China Sea.

Like the U.S., Japan is not a claimant in the South China Sea. Still, it does not recognize China’s attempts to alter the status quo through unilateral actions, not least because the two countries are embroiled in a row over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

However, Li is believed to have repeated China’s position that maritime disputes in the South China Sea with other claimants, namely, Taiwan and four ASEAN members — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — should be resolved bilaterally, not multilaterally, and without the interference of nonclaimant countries such as the U.S. and Japan.

Abe referred to Japan’s position of making and clarifying claims based on international law, not using force or coercion in trying to drive their claims, and seeking to settle disputes by peaceful means — a set of three principles that Japan, the U.S. and five other major industrialized nations affirmed during a Group of Seven summit that Abe hosted in May.

But other leaders apparently played down tensions over the South China Sea in a carefully worded draft statement.

The leaders “reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation in and over-flight in the South China Sea,” according a draft statement seen by Reuters.

But the draft tiptoed around the regional strains caused by competing claims to areas of the strategically important region.

“Several leaders remained seriously concerned over recent developments in the South China Sea,” said the draft.

The statement made no reference to a July ruling by a court in The Hague that declared illegal some of China’s artificial islands and invalidated its claims to almost the entire waterway.

Obama said on Thursday the ruling had helped clarify maritime rights. “I recognise this raises tensions but I also look forward to discussing how we can constructively move forward together to lower tensions,” he said at a summit meeting.

Officials said that talks on Wednesday between ASEAN leaders and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang had gone smoothly.

But in a statement later from China’s Foreign Ministry, Li was paraphrased as saying China was willing to work with Southeast Asian countries in “dispelling interference … and properly handling the South China Sea issue”.

He did not elaborate, but such wording is typically used by Chinese leaders to refer to not allowing countries from outside the region with no direct involvement in the dispute, like the U.S., from getting involved.

China claims much of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of trade moves annually. Taiwan and four ASEAN members — Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei — also have claims, making it a hot spot of regional tension.

The other ASEAN nations are Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand. Leaders from Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. also attended the summit.

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