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Asean leaders concerned over South China Sea land reclamations

[KUALA LUMPUR] Southeast Asian leaders said they have "serious concerns" about land reclamation in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, noting the practice could undermine security in the region.

The statement, released by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at the close of a summit of the leaders of its 10 member states in Kuala Lumpur, didn't mention any country by name. China has angered several Asean members, including the Philippines and Vietnam, with its claims to almost all of the South China Sea and moves to create artificial islands in the waters.

"We share the serious concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamation being undertaken in the South China Sea, which has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea," according to the Asean chairman's statement, which was dated Monday and released to the media Tuesday. While Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is hosting the gathering and thereby serving as Asean chairman, the statement reflects the consensus of the body.

Asean, which has a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of member nations, has often been criticised for failing to take a united stance on key issues facing the region, including the disputes in the South China Sea. During the 2012 Asean meeting in Cambodia, leaders failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in the bloc's 45-year history due to disagreements over the South China Sea.

Much of the region is heavily dependent on investment and trade with China, which asserts sovereignty over about four- fifths of the sea according to a so-called nine-dash line map it drew in the 1940s. China agreed to talks with Asean over a code of conduct for the South China Sea in July 2013, but little progress has been made.

The Asean statement "urged that consultations be intensified" on the code of conduct and said the foreign ministers of member states had been instructed to "urgently address this matter." All parties should exercise self- restraint in the conduct of activities in the sea and not resort to threats or the use of force, according to the statement.

"We reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation in and over-flight over the South China Sea," it said.