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Discussions at the 2015 Association of South East Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers’ meeting have been derailed by tensions over how to word references to the South China Sea. The notorious issue, which China initially requested be left off the agenda entirely, has signaled discord in the meeting, taking place in Kuala Lumpur. Singapore’s Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam told media on Tuesday that the issue was causing delays.
“The joint communiqué should have been done by yesterday. It has not been finalised as of now,” Mr Shanmugam stated.
“The paragraph relating to the South China Sea is causing some problems,” he said, revealing there was “no consensus on how the paragraph ought to be” as of yet.
Tensions over the stretch of sea were widely expected to be addressed at the meeting. Although China claims a majority stake in the waterway, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Brunei contest territorial rights.
The passage is a key route for some US$5 trillion in shipping transport, making it a crucial topic at the yearly meeting.
Reuters reported that early drafts of the communiqué expressed concern by ASEAN members that developments in the South China Sea avoid all use of threats or force by any claimant.
China recently accused the United States, invited to attend the meeting although not an ASEAN member, of militarizing the area by staging joint military drills and patrols there.
United States Secretary of State John Kerry, who met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the conference, urged Beijing to halt what he described as “problematic actions” in the area- referring to recent construction of sand piles around reefs in the sea, where 8km2 of artificial islands have been created.
Yi said that China had halted land reclamation efforts, and shared a desire with the ASEAN members to achieve a resolution to the longstanding issue within the region. However, China announced in June that construction in the Spratly archipelago would be completed soon.
Burmese and Indonesian representatives said the priority was to finalise a code of conduct, which would define policies to avoid further dispute in the area. The code is intended to bind China and other members to set rules of behaviour while at sea.
Gen. Tanasak Patimapragorn, Thailand’s foreign minister, said on Wednesday that talks on the code had progressed “to the next level”.
The foreign ministers will conclude their meeting on 6 August.