Foreign ministers from Southeast Asia have retracted a joint statement voicing "serious concern" over rising tensions in the South China Sea just hours after its release, underlining the lack of unity from the ASEAN bloc under mounting diplomatic pressure from Beijing.
Following a summit at a lakeside resort in south-western Yunnan province, top diplomats from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations member countries issued a statement on Tuesday warning the territorial disputes had the potential to "undermine peace, security and stability". They urged respect for international law in resolving disputes, in a thinly-veiled reference to Beijing's boycott and planned refusal of an imminent ruling from an international arbitration tribunal in The Hague.
"We emphasised the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation, which may raise tensions in the South China Sea," the statement said.
But late on Tuesday, just hours after the statement was issued, Malaysia's foreign ministry said the statement would be retracted, with "urgent amendments" to be made. This was despite the statement, made on Chinese soil, being carefully worded to only include language that had been used in previous statements, including at summits in Vientiane and with US President Barack Obama in Sunnylands in February.
ASEAN had yet to issue an amended statement this morning, by which time sources said the bloc might eschew a joint statement altogether, with individual countries free to release their own statements if they wished.
China has ramped up its diplomatic offensive ahead of an imminent tribunal ruling over the South China Sea brought by the Philippines, with many expecting the ruling to come down against Beijing.
China, which has reclaimed artificial islands and installed military equipment on disputed reefs in the waters, has refused to take part in proceedings and said it would not accept the tribunal's ruling. Beijing has instead aggressively courted support from predominantly economically dependent countries in the Middle East and Africa, and said last month 40 countries support its stance so far, including Afghanistan, Sudan and Vanuatu.
ASEAN has long struggled to agree on a united voice on South China Sea disputes, with member countries torn between pushing for a tougher response and remaining wary of angering their key economic partner. The countries also failed to agree on a joint communiqué in 2012 due to differing positions on the South China Sea.
Of the 10 member countries, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have competing territorial claims against China in the South China Sea.