VIENTIANE - Southeast Asian foreign ministers on Monday avoided making a united assessment on an international tribunal's ruling that rejected China's claims to almost the entire South China Sea.
The foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations finally agreed on what to say in their joint statement, a day after their one-day meeting in Vientiane, but they stopped short of making a specific reference to the July 12 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
The ministers instead said in general terms that they are committed to resolving regional disputes by respecting "legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea."
After divisions increased among some members of the 10-member bloc over how to deal with territorial rows in the South China Sea, mostly due to Cambodia's staunchly pro-Beijing stance, the ministers had to delay the issuance of the communique and senior officials working for them made last-ditch efforts to narrow differences.
The Philippines, in particular, pushed hard for the incorporation of ASEAN's resolve to honor The Hague-based court's ruling, which was for a case brought by Manila in 2013.
The ministers eventually reached a consensus over the wording during their special consultations on Monday, just ahead of a separate meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
"We believe that the temperature surrounding the arbitration case should be lowered and now regarding the South China Sea issue it's time for all to come back to the right track," Wang told a press conference after China's meeting with the ASEAN.
Wang also described the ASEAN ministers' views expressed over the South China Sea in the statement as having "no new wording" and said he confirmed that most AEAN members do not take sides with the ruling.
Though a signatory to the 1982 U.N. convention, China has dismissed the ruling as "a piece of wastepaper" and insisted that disputes in the resource-rich body of water must be addressed by claimants through bilateral negotiations.
While repeating China's basic position on the ruling, Wang proposed to his ASEAN counterparts that as part of efforts to facilitate mutual trust, the two sides should conclude their ongoing talks on the framework of a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea by the first half of next year.
Besides the Philippines, ASEAN members including Indonesia, Myanmar, Singapore and Vietnam had earlier demanded that the communique mention the need for "full respect for legal and diplomatic processes" when dealing with disputes in the South China Sea, according to diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity.
As it turned out, the ASEAN ministers underscored that need outside of the section for the South China Sea issue.
As this year's chair of the annual meeting, Laos, which also has strong economic ties with China, faced a daunting task in coordinating the conflicting demands.
China's rapid building of artificial islands with airstrips and military facilities in the South China Sea has stoked concerns not only among the six governments with overlapping claims there, which also include Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan, but also countries such as Japan and the United States, which Beijing calls "outsiders."
In their latest statement, under the section for the situation in the South China Sea, the ministers reiterated that they remain "seriously concerned" over recent and ongoing developments in the waters.
They also "took note" of the worries voiced by some of them about land reclamation and the escalation of activities there that have "eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region."