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ASEAN breaks deadlock in China's favor

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)
Foreign Ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations gathered for a meeting in Vientiane, Laos July 25, 2016. ©AFP

China has scored a diplomatic victory after Southeast Asia nations did not fulfill a demand by the Philippines to mention a recent ruling on the South China Sea dispute in their final statement. 

The request had pushed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) into deadlock over the past few days but the Philippines finally had to drop it amid opposition from some members. 

Maritime disputes are among the most contentious issues for ASEAN nations, with most of the group's 10 members having competing claims to the South China Sea. 

Last month, a tribunal in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines, dismissing Beijing's claims in the South China Sea that channels more than $5 trillion in global trade each year as illegal.   

The Philippines and Vietnam both wanted the ruling to feature in the ASEAN communique which threw the regional block's weekend meeting in the Laos capital of Vientiane into disarray.

After hectic negotiations, the members issued a watered-down rebuke, which did not mention China by name. 

In their communique, the ASEAN nations only said they "remain seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments" in the South China Sea.  

"We just averted another potential debacle," one ASEAN diplomat in the meeting said. 

The communique urged the nations to avoid militarization of the region. It also called for freedom of navigation to be maintained in the sea.

China publicly thanked Cambodia for supporting its stance on maritime disputes, saying the position would safeguard unity of ASEAN and cooperation with China.

"China greatly approves of Cambodia and other ASEAN countries taking charge of impartiality and safeguarding fairness," China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi said.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrives at a meeting at the sidelines of the ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Vientiane, Laos July 25, 2016. © Reuters

Beijing claims almost all of the 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.

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.

China rejected the arbitration, saying the court has no jurisdiction over the dispute. The country has asked the Philippines to solve the territorial issue bilaterally.

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

The sea has so far become a source of tension between China, the US, and some other regional countries, who are seeking control of trade routes and mineral deposits there.

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