Southeast Asian nations avoided rebuking Beijing or mentioning a recent UN-backed tribunal ruling against its claims in the South China Sea in a statement issued Monday that will be seen as a victory for the regional giant.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) instead repeated it was “seriously concerned” by “land reclamations and escalation of activities” and merely called for self-restraint in the strategic waterway.
Diplomats gathered for a summit in the Laos capital spent days wrangling over how to respond to this month’s ruling by a Hague-based tribunal which delivered a hammer blow to most of China’s historical claims over the region.
Staunch Beijing ally Cambodia was accused of scuppering efforts by the bloc to issue a joint statement calling on Beijing to adhere to the tribunal’s decision.
Most members of the bloc want to keep pressure on China over its campaign of island building in the strategic waters.
But ASEAN operates on a tradition of consensus diplomacy, meaning a single nation can have an effective veto if it disagrees.
The statement was finally released on Monday after last-minute talks finally found a way through the impasse. But it was clear Cambodia’s intransigence had carried the day.
“We just averted another potential debacle,” one Southeast Asian diplomat told AFP, referring to a 2012 summit in Cambodia where the bloc failed to issue a joint statement for the first time because of disagreements on the South China Sea.
Another diplomat, when asked if Monday’s statement had been watered down, said: “It’s a compromise statement. And in a compromise someone has to give way.”