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ASEAN meeting fails to produce statement on South China Sea row

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
ASEAN officials join hands for a group photo during the opening ceremony for the 49th annual ministerial meeting in Vientiane, Laos, July 24, 2016. (Photo by AFP)

Southeast Asian nations have failed to reach consensus on how to deal with China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea at a first meeting to discuss the issue.

The stalemate came after a three-hour discussion by the foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), who had gathered in Laos’ capital, Vientiane, on Sunday.

China’s ally Cambodia blocked consensus by refusing to approve a reference to the dispute in a statement to be produced by the ASEAN. Proposals at the body have to be concluded by consensus.

In the ASEAN gathering, China was accused by the countries that have competing claims over the waters of forging alliances with smaller countries like Laos and Cambodia through aid and loans to divide the bloc.

Despite the Sunday deadlock, deliberations on the issue are not over. The final ASEAN statement is to be issued on Tuesday.

China has increased its military drills in the South China Sea and has criticized the US for backing rival claimants over what it considers its territorial waters.

Earlier this month, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that China’s claim of sovereignty over disputed areas in the sea or its resources had no legal basis and accused Beijing of violating the Philippines’ economic and sovereign rights.

Other ASEAN nations, including Vietnam and Malaysia, have similar competing claims in the dispute over the South China Sea.

Beijing claims nearly all of the strategically vital South China Sea, which is also claimed in part by Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. The contested waters are believed to be rich in oil and gas.

The dispute has at times drawn in trans-regional countries, particularly the US. Beijing accuses Washington of meddling in regional issues and deliberately stirring up tensions in the South China Sea.

The US, in turn, accuses China of carrying out what it calls a land reclamation program in the South China Sea by building artificial islands in the disputed areas.

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