The members of the Southeast Asian alliance have dropped a reference to the South China Sea in their joint statement. The development is a victory for Beijing, which has staunchly defended its claims to the territory.
The decision by members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to water down its joint statement on Monday followed a series of chaotic negotiations and strong opposition from China ally Cambodia.
In the end, the ten members of the regional alliance settled on a statement that expressed concern "over recent and ongoing developments" in the South China Sea but that failed to mention China by name.
The statement also neglected to reference a recent ruling by a Hague-based tribunal that said China had no historic claims to the territory.
'Null and void'
Tensions in the region have been growing over the past decade as China has sought to exert its authority in the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by ASEAN members Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.
Beijing vehemently dismissed the Hague court ruling, calling it "null and void" and insisting instead on direct negotiations with the Philippines, which had lodged the suit.
Last week, Manila outright refused bilateral talks with Beijing, accusing it of wanting to undermine the international court ruling.
Seeking warmer relations
During negotiations to draft the joint statement this week, Cambodia lobbied on behalf of China to have references to the dispute removed. Like Beijing, Phnom Penh has called for bilateral discussions.
The Philippines eventually agreed to remove references to the court ruling in order to ensure a statement was actually released, the Reuters news agency reported.
ASEAN's decision comes as member states hope to foster improved relations with China, in many cases an important economic partner. The members of the organization are Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
blc/rc (AFP, Reuters, AP)