MANILA – Acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo and his Southeast Asian counterparts on Thursday discussed the South China Sea dispute with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, reiterating the need for a peaceful resolution amid tensions wrought by China's persistent island-building and militarization activities in the waters.
Tillerson’s meeting with foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Washington came barely a week after the 10-nation bloc issued a heavily watered down final statement, which omitted concerns on the sea row.
It was the top US diplomat's first ministerial meeting with all members of the regional bloc.
In a joint statement, the ASEAN foreign ministers said they "discussed the issue of South China Sea and both sides underscored the importance of peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with the principle of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)."
“We reiterated the principles previously agreed by our leaders and we call for the early agreement on the framework and expeditious conclusion of a code of conduct in the South China Sea," read the statement.
At the meeting, Tillerson also called on nations with competing claims in the South China Sea to cease all island building and militarization while talks aimed at creating a maritime code of conduct were under way.
Four Asean nations- the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei- claim part of the resource rich waters. China meanwhile claims ownership of almost the entire South China Sea.
In what was considered a victory for China, the ASEAN’s joint statement released after the summit in Manila on Saturday was notably silent on China's defeat to the Philippines before the Hague-based arbitration court, which invalidated the basis of Beijing's sweeping claims over the South China Sea.
China has ignored the landmark ruling, asserting "indisputable sovereignty" over the waters.
The ASEAN statement also avoided mention of Beijing's island-building activities in the disputed waters and of Chinese militarization of these islands.
The Philippines, which sits as chair of the regional bloc this year, had been urged to take advantage of its chairmanship to push China to abide by the tribunal’s ruling.
However, President Rodrigo Duterte, who has opted to downplay the sea row as he pursued improved economic ties with Beijing, said there was no point in raising China’s reclamation activities at the summit.
At the conclusion of the meeting, however, Duterte said the ASEAN hopes to finish drafting a binding code of conduct before yearend.
Subhead: 'Grave concern' over tensions in the Korean Peninsula
The ASEAN foreign leaders also discussed the increasing tensions in the Korean peninsula due to North Korea’s nuclear threats.
“We discussed the situation in the Korean peninsula and expressed grave concern over the escalation of the tension. We strongly urge the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) to fully comply with its obligations arising from all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions and international laws,” they said.
The White House has said US President Donald Trump has been consulting Asian leaders regarding the situation in North Korea. The US leader recently called Duterte to discuss the issue.
Duterte has urged the US and other Asian powers to go on easy on North Korea. In a speech Thursday, Duterte again stressed that China plays an important role in cooling down tensions in the Korean peninsula, as Beijing is considered the closest and most powerful ally of Pyongyang.
The Philippine President also said Trump asked him to call Chinese President Xi Jinping to seek Beijing's intervention in the increasingly tense situation in the Korean peninsula.
At the meeting, Tillerson urged ASEAN foreign ministers to do more to help cut funding streams for North Korea's nuclear and missile programs and to minimize diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.
Patrick Murphy, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said Tillerson stressed Washington's security and economic commitment to the region, amid doubts raised by President Donald Trump's "America First" platform and withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact.
Tillerson called on ASEAN countries to fully implement U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang, which is working to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the United States, and to show a united front on the issue, Murphy said.
"We think that more can be done, not just in Southeast Asia," he told reporters. "We are encouraging continued and further steps across all of ASEAN."
In response, Manalo said ASEAN ministers have yet to discuss Tillerson's call for nations to downgrade ties with North Korea, but added: "...[T]hat's probably something we will look at."
"Our immediate concern is to try and ensure the tension on the peninsula doesn't increase. ... The last thing we would like to see is to have a conflict break out due to some miscalculation," Manalo said.
Last week, Tillerson called on all countries to suspend or downgrade diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, saying that North Korea abuses diplomatic privileges to help fund its arms programs. Tillerson also warned that Washington would sanction foreign firms and people conducting business with North Korea if countries did not act themselves. -- with a report from Reuters