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ASEAN overcomes communique impasse, urges non-militarisation in South China Sea

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India\'s Minister of State for External Affairs Shri V. K. Singh (3rd-L) and ASEAN foreign ministers hold communique documents during the Mekong-Ganga Ministerial meeting of the 50th Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum (ARF) in Ma

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Reuters, Manila :
Southeast Asian foreign ministers ended an impasse on Sunday over how to address disputes with China in the South China Sea, issuing a communique that called for militarization to be avoided and noting concern about island-building.
The South China Sea has long been the most divisive issue for the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), with China's influence looming large over its activities. Some countries are wary about the possible repercussions of defying Beijing by taking a stronger stand.
ASEAN failed to issue the customary statement on Saturday, over what diplomats said was disagreement about whether to make oblique references to China's rapid expansion of its defense capabilities on artificial islands in disputed waters.
China is sensitive to even a veiled reference by ASEAN to its seven reclaimed reefs, three of which have runways, missile batteries, radars and, according to some experts, the capability to accommodate fighter jets.
The communique late on Sunday takes a stronger position than an earlier, unpublished draft, which was a watered-down version of one issued last year in Laos.
The agreed text "emphasized the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint".
It said that after extensive discussions, concerns were voiced by some members about land reclamation "and activities in the area which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tension and may undermine peace, security and stability".
ASEAN's deadlock over the statement highlights China's growing influence on the grouping at a time of uncertainty over the new U.S. administration's security priorities and whether it will try to keep China's maritime activities in check.
Several ASEAN diplomats said that among the members who pushed for a communique that retained the more contentious elements was Vietnam, which has competing claims with China over the Paracel and Spratly archipelago and has had several spats with Beijing over energy concessions.
Another diplomat, however, said there was no real disagreement on the contents of the communique and stressed that the initial draft was seen by some members as weak.
Also on Sunday the foreign ministers of ASEAN and China adopted a negotiating framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea, a move they hailed as progress but seen by critics as a tactic to buy China time to consolidate its maritime power.
Meanwhile, the United States, Australia and Japan on Monday denounced Beijing's island-building and militarisation of the South China Sea, in contrast to the increasingly tepid response from Southeast Asian nations over the festering issue.
China claims nearly all of the sea, through which $5 trillion in annual shipping trade passes and which is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits.
Its sweeping claims overlap with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei-all members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc-as well as Taiwan.
But in recent years Beijing has managed to weaken regional resistance by courting some ASEAN members.
On Sunday Beijing scored a coup when ASEAN ministers issued a diluted statement on the dispute and agreed to Beijing's terms on talks during a security forum which the bloc is hosting in Manila.
China insists that a much-delayed code of conduct between it and ASEAN members over the disputed sea must not be legally binding, a demand to which Southeast Asian countries have so far acquiesced.
But in a joint statement after their foreign ministers met on the sidelines of the same gathering, the US, Japan and Australia delivered a noticeably sterner rebuke to Beijing.
Criticising ongoing "land reclamation, construction of outposts, militarisation of disputed features" in the disputed sea, the trio said any code of conduct must be "legally binding, meaningful and effective", a demand noticeably absent from the ASEAN statement.  
The three nations also called on China and the Philippines to respect last year's international arbitration ruling which dismissed much of Beijing's claim in the sea.
The Philippines had been one of the most vocal critics of China and filed a case before a UN-backed tribunal.
But after the election of President Rodrigo Duterte last year, Manila has played down the verdict in favour of pursuing warmer ties with Beijing, a move that led to offers of billions of dollars in investments or aid from China.

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