• Reuters, Kyodo


Southeast Asian leaders took a softer stance on disputes in the South China Sea during a summit that ended Saturday, avoiding tacit references to China’s building and arming of its man-made islands, according to the chairman’s statement.

A final statement of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which was not made available until Sunday, dropped the references to “land reclamation and militarization” included in the text issued at last year’s meeting in Laos and an earlier, unpublished version seen Saturday.

The outcome follows what two ASEAN diplomats said were efforts by Chinese Foreign Ministry and embassy officials in Manila to pressure ASEAN chair the Philippines to keep Beijing’s contentious activities in the strategic waterway off ASEAN’s official agenda.

It also indicates four ASEAN members who the diplomats said had wanted a firmer position had agreed to the more conciliatory tone in the statement.

China is not a member of ASEAN and was not attending the summit but is extremely sensitive about the content of its statements and considers it a barometer of the bloc’s dissent over its artificial islands in disputed waters.

China’s embassy in Manila could not be reached and its Foreign Ministry did not respond to request for comment Saturday.

The ASEAN statement also noted “the improving cooperation between ASEAN and China,” and did not include references to “tensions” or “escalation of activities” seen in earlier drafts and in last year’s text. It noted some leaders’ concerns about “recent developments.”

Beijing has reacted angrily to members expressing their concern about its rapid reclamation of reefs in the Spratly archipelago and its installation of missile systems on them.

According to some experts, China is now capable of deploying combat aircraft on several of its man-made features.

The softened statement comes as the current ASEAN chairman, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, seeks to bury the hatchet with China after years of wrangling over its maritime assertiveness, including its four-year blockade of the Scarborough Shoal.

Beijing has quietly eased that, in response to Duterte’s request to allow Filipinos to fish there again.

Duterte set the tone for the meeting on Thursday when he told reporters it would be pointless discussing China’s maritime activities, because no one dared to pressure Beijing anyway.

An ASEAN diplomat on Sunday said the statement was a genuine representation of the atmosphere of the Manila meetings.

“We respected the Philippines’ views and cooperated with the Philippines as this year’s chair,” the diplomat said.

“It clearly reflected how the issue was discussed.”

Duterte’s foreign policy approach represents a stunning reversal of that of the previous administration, which had close ties with the United States and was seen by China as a nuisance.

The Philippines government in 2013 challenged Beijing by lodging a case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

Two weeks into Duterte’s presidency last year, the Hague court ruled in favor of the Philippines, angering China. But Duterte has made it clear he would not press Beijing to comply anytime soon, and is more interested in doing business than sparring.

The chairman’s statement issued Sunday made no mention to the arbitration case.

However, it did include in a section separate to the South China Sea chapter the need to show “full respect for legal and diplomatic processes” in resolving disputes.

Underlining Beijing’s sensitivity about the arbitration case, the two diplomatic sources who spoke Saturday said Chinese Embassy officials had lobbied behind the scenes for that sentence to be dropped, and saw it as a veiled reference to the ruling.

ASEAN leaders also voiced concerns over threats to regional peace and stability, particularly on the Korean Peninsula.

Referring to North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs, the leaders of the 10-member regional bloc expressed “grave concern over recent developments in the Korean Peninsula,” according to the ASEAN chairman’s statement.

North Korea’s actions, including two nuclear tests in 2016 and subsequent test-firings of ballistic missiles, “have resulted in an escalation of tensions that can affect peace and stability in the entire region,” it said.

The leaders urged North Korea to “immediately comply fully with its obligations arising from all relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions and stressed the importance of exercising self-restraint in the interest of maintaining peace, security and stability in the region and the world.”

They also reiterated their “full support for the denuclearizaton of the Korean Peninsula” and called on “concerned parties to explore all avenues for immediate dialogue.”

“We exchanged views on regional and international issues of common interest and concern. … We had engaged in a productive and fruitful deliberation of ASEAN’s work in the community building process,” Duterte said at the meeting’s closing news conference.

“We acknowledged the importance of ASEAN cooperation in addressing issues that affect peace, security and prosperity of the region including terrorism, violent extremism, piracy, human trafficking and illegal drugs,” he added.

Duterte and some ASEAN foreign ministers said the leaders agreed that the United States should tone down its confrontational stance toward North Korea and give China the chance to rein it in.

According to ASEAN sources, Duterte told his counterparts in the closed-door plenary session that the U.S. should withdraw from confronting North Korea and allow China to handle the situation, while calling for Beijing to urge Pyongyang to halt its “saber-rattling with nuclear weapons.”

Duterte said if the current tensions lead to nuclear war, “no one will win,” the sources said.

On the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the leaders “emphasized that the sluggish economic environment and trends towards protectionism increases the need to achieve a modern, comprehensive, high-quality and mutually beneficial RCEP Agreement.”

The statement said the ASEAN leaders urged the grouping’s “dialogue partners,” which include the United States, “to honor the valued principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of ASEAN member states, including respect for the right of every member state to pursue its national interests free from external interference.”

Duterte, in particular, has rejected Western countries’ criticism over his bloody campaign against illegal drugs in the Philippines.

The statement shows that other matters tackled included East Timor’s application to become an ASEAN member. There was no mention of the Rohingya issue in Myanmar.

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