Southeast Asian leaders have softened their stance on China’s territorial claims in the South China, handing Beijing a diplomatic victory.
Their reticence in discussing Beijing’s defiance of an international court order nullifying most of China’s claims contrasted with the outspokenness of US President Barack Obama, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Chinese diplomats seized on the divergence in rhetoric, claiming that the US is trying to play up an issue that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has moved on from.
The Philippines, which filed the arbitration case against China that yielded the ruling in July at a tribunal at The Hague, failed to mention the matter during a high-profile meeting on Thursday.
Earlier, Obama and Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged Beijing to comply with the verdict, which rejected Chinese claims to historic and economic rights across a wide swath of the South China Sea.
“Only two countries are still sowing dissension, focusing on the South China Sea disputes and bringing up the arbitration case,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told reporters after the summit.
“This page on the arbitration has long been turned.”
Obama, speaking to reporters after Thursday’s meeting, continued to insist that the tribunal ruling is “legal and binding” and said ASEAN leaders recognized its importance in declaring that Chinese claims to the disputed waters have no legal basis.
Washington has led calls from some Western and Asian governments for China to abide by the tribunal ruling.
Four ASEAN members — Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei — claim territorial rights in the South China Sea.
Those waters, home to rich fisheries and oil-and-gas reserves and through which US$5 trillion in trade flow each year, are claimed almost in its entirety by Beijing.
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