Southeast Asian leaders removed an indirect reference to the arbitration ruling that invalidated China's sweeping sea claims from a paragraph on the South China Sea, which was part of a final statement issued by President Rodrigo Duterte at the end of the 10-member regional bloc’s summit.
Scoring a diplomatic victory, China also avoided criticisms of its expansion and military buildup in the South China Sea even as some of the bloc's members, such as Philippines and Vietnam, were aggravated by Beijing's aggressive actions.
After intense negotiations, ASEAN leaders issued a watered down statement and removed references to China's massive land reclamation and militarization in the disputed waters, which have been featured in the bloc's two previous communiques last year.
The massive reclamation and militarization were mentioned at the ASEAN-US summit with former US President Barack Obama in Sunnylands, California in February 2016 and also the same year in Laos, a known Chinese ally, when it hosted the ASEAN summit.
But in the final ASEAN Chairman's Statement, issued a day after their talks in Manila on Saturday, leaders merely "took note of concerns expressed by some Leaders over recent developments in the area."
"We reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation and over-flight in and above the South China Sea," the statement read.
"We reaffirmed the importance of the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities, and avoiding actions that may further complicate the situation, and pursuing the peaceful resolution of disputes, without resorting to the threat or use of force," it added.
The mention of land reclamation and militarization were not featured in an earlier draft of the statement that was obtained by GMA News Online, but Vietnam, according to diplomatic sources, insisted that it should be included in the communique.
The reference on arbitration ruling where leaders were supposed to call for “full respect for legal and diplomatic processes” was likewise omitted from paragraphs on the South China Sea and moved to another, where it can’t be linked to the disputes.
Based on an earlier draft of the Chairman’s Statement, such phrase was included in a paragraph devoted to the South China Sea under the topic Regional and International Issues and Developments as in two previous communiques issued by the group last year.
However, in the final Chairman’s Statement, the new paragraph was awkwardly placed under ASEAN Community Building and the Way Forward. It did not mention the South China Sea.
“We reaffirmed the shared commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security and stability in the region, as well as to the peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for 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 (UNCLOS),” it said.
GMA News Online earlier reported that China wants the Philippines — the current chairman of the ASEAN and host of ongoing high-level meetings in Manila — to avoid citing its South China Sea arbitration victory in the final statement.
China has dismissed the tribunal ruling as a sham, saying the The Hague-based tribunal has no authority to rule on the disputes, which it says is a purely bilateral issue.
Chinese diplomats, in separate meetings with Philippine officials, before and during the summit sought a softer and less hostile language on the South China Sea paragraph in the Chairman's statement.
They asked Manila to avoid any reference to the July 12, 2016 arbitration decision handed down by an international tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, which invalidated Beijing’s sweeping historic claims over the resource-rich waters. China is not a member of the ASEAN.
Chinese officials told the Philippine government that it doesn’t want the phrase “respect for legal and diplomatic process,” which is linked to the arbitration ruling, included in the South China Sea paragraph.
Philippine diplomats, according to sources, took a hard-line stance, but told Chinese officials that it will find a way to “balance all concerns.”
“A win-win solution for the Philippines and China was to move the phrase to other paragraphs of the Chairman’s Statement,” a senior government official told GMA News Online.
As this year’s chairman of the ASEAN, the Philippines can influence the outcome of the Chairman’s statement.
The apparent move by the Philippines to give in to the Chinese demand reflects President Rodrigo Duterte’s friendly overtones to Beijing and his efforts to de-escalate tensions in the disputed waters between the Philippines and China.
A Southeast Asian diplomat, who asked not be named due to lack of authority to speak to the media, believes the Philippines cannot risk antagonizing China ahead of its first bilateral meeting on its territorial disputes in the South China Sea in May.
The South China Sea encompasses vital sea lanes and is believed to be rich in oil and gas and mineral deposits.
Four ASEAN members — Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei — are embroiled in long-simmering territorial disputes with China.
In a dramatic shift in Philippine foreign policy, Duterte, since assuming office last year, has taken steps to mend ties with South China Sea rival China that considerably deteriorated during the time of his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, who brought the territorial rifts to international arbitration.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration last year delivered a sweeping victory to the Philippines on the case it filed against China and declared as illegal China's claim over nearly the entire South China Sea.
It also declared that Beijing violated the rights of Filipinos, who were blocked by Chinese Coast Guard from fishing in the disputed Scarborough Shoal off northwestern Philippines.
Duterte said he will temporarily set aside the ruling to avoid confrontation with China, but vowed to raise it at the right time during his presidency.
Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario criticized the Philippine government for yielding to Chinese pressure.
"Our government –in it's desire to fully and quickly accommodate our aggressive northern neighbor –may have left itself negotiating a perilous road with little or no room to rely on brake power and a chance to shift gears - if necessary," Del Rosario said.
Lauro Baja, former Philippine Undersecretary for Policy, said ASEAN efforts by China to intervene in ASEAN policy-making decisions is “not surprising.”
Meanwhile, the tension in the Korean Peninsula was mentioned in the final statement.
"We expressed our grave concern over recent developments in the Korean Peninsula, including the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) two nuclear tests in 2016 and subsequent ballistic missile launches. The actions of the DPRK have resulted in an escalation of tensions that can affect peace and stability in the entire region," it said.
"We urge the DPRK to immediately comply fully with its obligations arising from all relevant United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions and stressed the importance of exercising self-restraint in the interest of maintaining peace, security and stability in the region and the world," it added. —ALG/LBG, GMA News