[HONG KONG] A meeting in China of foreign ministers from Southeast Asian nations over the South China Sea has ended in confusion after Malaysia released and then retracted a joint statement expressing "serious concerns" over developments in the disputed waterway.
The disarray raises fresh questions about unity within the 10-member Association of South-east Asian Nations over the issue, ahead of an international court ruling on a Philippine challenge to China's claims to more than 80 percent of the waterway. Asean operates on consensus, which means all members need to agree on a statement before it is released.
So far Asean has avoided citing China by name in statements calling for a lowering of tensions. China's claims criss-cross those by nations including the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia, and it has reclaimed thousands of acres of land in the area in recent years while boosting its military presence.
It has argued that the disputes in the waters that handle more than US$5 trillion of trade a year have nothing to do with its relationship with Asean.
After noting progress in ties between China and Asean, the withdrawn statement added: "But we also cannot ignore what is happening in the South China Sea as it is an important issue in the relations and cooperation between Asean and China."
That phrase in the statement is "a direct rebuke to China's position that the dispute is not a matter between Asean and China," said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies in Singapore. China has said the disputes should be handled on a bilateral basis.
China's foreign ministry said in April after a meeting with Laos, Cambodia and Brunei that the countries agreed the disputes "are not an issue between China and the Association of South-east Asian Nations, and should not affect China-Asean relations."
The Hague tribunal has been asked by the Philippines to rule on the status of features China contests as well as the legal basis of its "historic rights" claim, based on a 1940s map showing a dashed line covering around 1.4 million square miles. A ruling seen as unfavorable to Beijing would undermine its claims.
The US, which says it doesn't take a position on the disputes, has since October last year sailed warships three times near China's artificial islands to demonstrate the right to transit what it considers international territory.
The tensions go to the heart of a strategic rivalry between the US, overseer of the region's security network for decades, and a rising China intent on becoming the region's dominant power.
Both have sought to gather support in the lead-up to the arbitration decision, with diplomats and officials visiting a number of Asean nations. China claims the support of countries as varied as Russia, Gambia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Still, Group of Seven leaders expressed concern about instability in the South China Sea at a meeting in Japan last month.
Asean has a history of struggling to agree on communiques amid disagreement over wording on the South China Sea. China is the largest trading partner for the grouping, which is chaired this year by the small country of Laos.
Defense ministers from the bloc were unable to agree on a declaration after a meeting in Kuala Lumpur in November.
In August foreign ministers struggled to reach consensus on the matter, releasing a statement hours after the end of a three-day meeting.
In 2012, Asean failed to reach common ground on the South China Sea issue, ending a regional conference without a joint statement - the first in its 45-year history.
After the meeting collapsed, Cambodia denied it had fallen prey to pressure from China to avoid raising the issue in the statement. China had warned nations beforehand to not mention the territorial spats.
About three hours after the Kunming statement was released on Tuesday night, Malaysia said it needed to be retracted to make urgent changes. An amended statement has not been released.
Singapore's foreign ministry said in a separate statement late Tuesday that Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan "noted the serious concerns expressed by the Asean foreign ministers over the developments on the ground" in the South China Sea.
A ministry spokeswoman said Mr Balakrishnan, who co-chaired the meeting, left Kunming Tuesday. Thailand's Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to questions on whether it planned its own statement.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi described the meeting as "a timely and important strategic communication," according to a statement posted late Tuesday on the ministry's website.
"There is more cooperation than disagreement in the China-Asean relationship, and more opportunities than challenges, more unity than friction," Mr Wang was quoted as saying.
Still, state-run tabloid the Global Times published an editorial Wednesday with the headline: "Asean slapped China in the face over South China Sea? Western media's crazy thoughts".
It said there was no joint statement from the meeting, and any such communique would require all parties to approve it.