Southeast Asian nations struggled to agree on a concluding statement at a regional meeting in Malaysia because of wrangling over how to refer to the disputed South China Sea, Singapore’s Foreign Minister said on Thursday.
The delay is a sign of the divisions within the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in dealing with China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, in particular Beijing’s recent construction of artificial islands in the waterway.
“The joint communique should have been done by yesterday. It has not been finalised as of now,” Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam told a news conference in Kuala Lumpur.
“The paragraph relating to the South China Sea is causing some problems,” he said, adding there was “no consensus on how the paragraph ought to be”.
He declined to give details on the wording.
Tensions over the South China Sea have dominated talks this week in the Malaysian capital, where ASEAN foreign ministers have also met their counterparts from various countries including China and the United States. China claims most of the waterway, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
ASEAN foreign ministers concluded their talks on Tuesday after rebuffing a request from China to leave the dispute off the agenda. Some foreign ministers, including from host Malaysia, said it was too important to ignore. An earlier draft communique said ASEAN was concerned about developments in the South China Sea and emphasized there should be no use of threats or force.