VIENTIANE - Southeast Asian leaders are set to avoid references to a recent arbitration ruling that undermined China's claims to the South China Sea, after omitting it from a joint statement at a summit this week over which Beijing's influence looms large.
A draft communique of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) seen by Reuters on Monday listed eight points related to the South China Sea, but made no mention of a high-profile July ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which invalidated Beijing's territorial claims.
The decision to exclude reference to the ruling represents a diplomatic victory for China, following ASEAN's decision at its last meeting in July to turn down a U.S.-backed proposal to include the landmark ruling in the text.
China refuses to recognize the case brought by the Philippines in 2013. Its outrage over the verdict has created regional concerns that Beijing might take a tougher line in future disputes.
Soon after the ruling in The Hague, the Philippines lobbied strongly at an ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting for the verdict to be included in the text of the communique, only for Cambodia, a China ally, to oppose it.
Beijing publicly thanked Phnom Penh for its support.
China has been accused of pressuring some countries in the consensus-led, 10-nation bloc to stymie what it sees as unfavorable proposals.
ASEAN does not include China, but leaders and senior representatives from China, the United States and other regional powers are attending the Laos summit.
Experts say that China's approach makes it harder for Southeast Asian states to form a unified front to counter Beijing's assertiveness over the strategic waterway.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte wants to negotiate with Beijing, and has pledged not to rock the boat by discussing the ruling at this week's ASEAN and East Asia Summits in Laos.
But a few days before the meetings, the outspoken leader vowed to make no concessions towards China over the ruling, and demanded that Beijing explain why it had increased its boat presence around the disputed Scarborough Shoal.
Sek Wannamethee, a spokesman for Thailand's foreign ministry, said it was unclear from Senior Officials Meetings (SOM) if Manila would bring its concerns about China to the Laos forum.
"There is no indication at the preparatory ASEAN SOM yet as to what, if anything, the Philippines would raise at the summit regarding the South China Sea," Sek said.
The draft communique contained one new element on the South China Sea, welcoming the adoption of emergency hotlines and rules among ASEAN states and China to prevent military mishaps, known as the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea.