ASEAN welcomes progress on framework for South China Sea code of conduct

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"Most of those statements related to such sensitive issues like the South China Sea tend to be very general and wouldn't go down to specifics, even including highlighting any particular country as singled out for some kind of reprimand in the statement", Koh said.

Last week, Asean chairman Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, said the summit would avoid mentioning a ruling by an global maritime court in The Hague dismissing China's claims to 95 per cent of the South China Sea.

Duterte was speaking in his role as chairman of ASEAN, a group of ten South-East Asian countries that is meeting in the Philippines' capital over the weekend against a backdrop of yet another failed ballistic test that Pyongyang launched on Saturday morning.

"The actions of [North Korea] have resulted in an escalation of tensions that can affect peace and stability in the entire region", the ASEAN statement said.

The statement, however, will not mention the worldwide tribunal ruling nor China directly.

China has reclaimed land in the South China Sea and built facilities on it, including those military in nature, despite a 2002 agreement with ASEAN not to change the status quo in the area.

Sunday's statement noted "the improving cooperation between Asean and China" in the South China Sea, with the leaders also recognizing "the long term benefits" of peace, stability and sustainable development in the region.

The ruling by the United Nations-backed arbitral panel invalidated Beijing's claims of nearly the entire South China Sea and said China violated Manila's sovereign right to fish and explore resources in the West Philippine Sea.

But some Asean diplomats doubt China is honest about agreeing to a set of rules. The Philippines is hoping a framework for a code of conduct can be concluded this year between ASEAN and China.

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Mr Duterte, who has been warming his country's once frosty relations with China, said on Thursday it was pointless to discuss China's island-building in the South China Sea and the tribunal's ruling, calling both a "non-issue".

Ahead of the one-day ASEAN summit, the Philippine leader said the Southeast Asian nations were helpless to stop Beijing from building artificial islands in disputed waters, hence there was no point protesting against it at diplomatic events. "It's already there. What would be the objective also of discussing it is you can not do anything", Duterte told reporters Thursday.

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Herman Joseph S. Kraft, associate professor at the UP political science department, said separately that the latest ASEAN statement "continues the soft position taken by ASEAN towards Chinese activities that have contributed to making the issue a source of continuing tensions in the region".

China and ASEAN member states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, along with Taiwan, have overlapping claims to territory in the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which billions of dollars in world trade passes each year.

The tribunal a year ago ruled largely in the Philippines' favour.

China's construction of seven islands, now feared to be armed with missiles, and last year's arbitration ruling against China's expansive claims are two new realities that have elevated the issue to new levels of uncertainty.