The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) failed at a weekend meeting in Laos to reach consensus on criticizing Beijing over Chinese claims of sovereignty over most of the South China Sea. Those claims were roundly rejected this month by an international tribunal.
In a joint communique released after a meeting in Vientiane of the ASEAN and Chinese foreign ministers on Sunday, ASEAN said the organization will "remain seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments" in the South China Sea.
The statement did not mention China by name, nor did it mention the recent ruling by an international arbitration panel in a dispute between the Philippines and China that said China's claims in the South China Sea were in violation of international law.
China has dismissed the ruling, saying the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration lacks authority to rule on what Beijing calls bilateral disputes and calling for direct negotiations with the Philippines instead.
The tribunal's award "amounts to prescribing a dose of the wrong medicine ... and it seems that certain countries outside the region have got all worked up, keeping the fever high," said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
“If the prescription is wrong it will not help cure any disease. That's why we urge other countries in the region to lower the temperature," he told a news conference after 90 minutes of talks with the ASEAN ministers.
While China is not a member of the organization, it has close bilateral ties to ASEAN members and is part of an ASEAN 10 forum that includes China and the other diplomatic partners.
The ASEAN communique came after Cambodia, China’s closest ally in ASEAN, reportedly refused to back stronger language. ASEAN's guiding principle is to make all statements by consensus.
While the Barack Obama administration has highlighted its "re-balancing" of U.S. interests from Europe and the Middle East toward East Asia, Washington’s attempt to pivot has repeatedly bumped against Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea.
The U.S. says it maintains neutrality in questions of sovereignty in disputes over the South China Sea involving China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei. But Washington supports freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and has sailed naval vessels through the important seaway to underscore its policy.
Moves by China earlier this year to place anti-aircraft batteries and radar systems on disputed islands in the sea have alarmed Washington and neighboring countries.
Some of the world’s busiest sea lanes traverse the South China Sea, which is also a rich fishing ground and may contain petroleum reserves under the sea bed.
Taiwan and China both claim nearly the entire sea, while Vietnam and the Philippines also have large claims. Brunei and Malaysia have smaller stakes in waters and land features that lie much closer to those nations than they do to faraway China.
With its latest proclamation, ASEAN doesn’t appear to be willing to inflame China’s feelings in the dispute.
"Both China and ASEAN believe this page should have been turned and the temperature lowered," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said.