HANOI - Defense ministers from ASEAN and its eight partners, including the United States and China, wrapped up their one-day virtual meeting Thursday, with all members reaffirming "the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety, and freedom of navigation and overflight" in the region.
In the group's first joint declaration since 2013, the ministers agreed to "exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation, and pursue peaceful resolution of disputes, without coercion, in accordance with international law."
While the declaration made no specific mention of the South China Sea, in a press statement, however, host Vietnam said the ministers agreed "to use peaceful means and abide by the international law to settle divergent issues, especially the issues related to disputes over territory and sovereignty, including disputes in the South China Sea."
The press statement said the ministers emphasized that "the disputes in the South China Sea can only be effectively resolved in the spirit of friendship, goodwill in cooperation, and in accordance with the international law" and "the early conclusion of an effective and substantive COC (code of conduct)" in the sea, therefore, is needed.
Among the participants in the Vietnam-hosted meeting were acting US Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe and Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, as well as ministers representing Australia, India and Russia.
The South China Sea, most of which China has claimed as its own, was the focal point of the meeting with the Japanese Defense Ministry stressing that above all, "the rule of law is a necessary condition in ensuring free and open seas."
"However, in the South China Sea, we have seen contrary actions that increase tensions, such as ballistic missile launches and further militarization of the terrain," the ministry said in a statement.
"We strongly oppose any unilateral change of the status quo by force or established facts that could threaten the stability of the region and we share our concern with ASEAN over this grave situation," it added.
Among the other claimants in the sea are Vietnam and the Philippines, both members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The meeting comes just days after Miller, in an op-ed article in a Philippine newspaper, accused China of exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to advance its interests in the South China Sea while other countries were battling the health crisis.
"Beijing has used its navy, coast guard and maritime militia to assert excessive and unlawful maritime claims and bully its neighbors," he said in the article, which appeared in Monday's edition of the Philippine Star.
The article drew a furious response from the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines, who said it is the United States that has "taken provocative actions increasingly."
While China has rapidly built artificial islands with military infrastructure in the South China Sea, US warships have carried out "freedom of navigation" operations there in an effective bid to challenge Chinese claims and actions in the waters.
Miller and Wei held talks with their ASEAN counterparts separately Wednesday in virtual settings during which both expressed their countries' commitment to deepening cooperation with ASEAN.
Before the meeting began, a ceremony was held to mark the 10th anniversary of the launch of the so-called ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus. This year's meeting was the seventh overall.
The meeting draws defense ministers from the 10 countries that make up ASEAN and eight other countries -- Australia, India, China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States.
ASEAN consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam.