By Manuel Mogato and Enrico Dela Cruz
MANILA (Reuters) – Southeast Asian leaders wrapped up a summit on Saturday with no indication of an agreement on how to address Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, a divisive issue in a region uncertain about its ties with the United States.
Six hours after the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit officially ended in Manila, no customary joint statement had been issued and it was unclear whether there was agreement over including references to China’s militarization and island-building in the hotly disputed waterway.
ASEAN references to the South China Sea issue typically do not name China. Beijing is extremely sensitive to anything it perceives as a veiled reference to its expansion of its seven manmade islands in the Spratly archipelago, including with hangers, runways, radars and missiles.
This year’s summit comes at a time of uncertainty about U.S. interests in the region and whether it will maintain its maritime presence to counter Chinese assertiveness that has often put the region on edge.
A spokesman for the Philippines foreign ministry said a statement would be issued on Saturday.
Two ASEAN diplomatic sources earlier on Saturday told Reuters that Chinese embassy representatives in Manila had sought to influence the content of the communique.
The sources said the Chinese officials had lobbied the Philippines to keep tacit references to Beijing’s island-building and arming of artificial islands out of the statement.
But an unpublished draft dated Friday and seen by Reuters included the term “land reclamation and militarization”, which were not featured in a draft two days earlier. The diplomats said four ASEAN member states had objected to it being omitted.
China is not a member of ASEAN and was not attending the summit. China’s embassy in Manila could not be reached and its foreign ministry did not respond to request for comment.
The content of Friday’s draft would indicate ASEAN was resisting moves by China to keep its contentious activities in the strategic South China Sea off ASEAN’s official agenda.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who chaired Saturday’s meeting, did not answer a question after the summit about whether the statement would refer to “militarization”.
He said ASEAN wanted to complete a framework for a maritime code of conduct with Beijing this year to defuse tensions.
“They want the code of conduct enacted by the at least, at the very least before the end of this year so that everybody would just feel comfortable,” Duterte told a news conference.
“Because if not, it remains to be a flashpoint.”
Duterte also made a no-nonsense call for calm on the Korean Peninsula and urged the United States not to be provoked by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who he said “wants to end the world” and “relishes letting go of missiles”.
Duterte spoke by phone to U.S. President Donald Trump late on Saturday, his aide said. The Philippine leader earlier told reporters he would urge Trump not to be provoked by Kim.
He called for joint efforts to halt extremism and piracy, and several times stressed the importance of non-interference in a country’s affairs.
Duterte also called for collaboration to tackle illegal drugs, amid a fierce crackdown at home that has killed thousands of Filipinos and caused international alarm.
“The illegal drug trade apparatus is massive. But it is not impregnable,” he said in opening the summit.
“With political will and cooperation, it can be dismantled, it can be destroyed before it destroys our societies.”
(Additional reporting Kanupriya Kapoor, and Neil Jerome Morales in Manila and John Ruwitch in Shanghai; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Ros Russell)