By Manuel Mogato and Enrico Dela Cruz
MANILA (Reuters) – Southeast Asian leaders wrapped up a summit on Saturday with no indication of an agreement on how to address Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, a divisive issue in a region uncertain about its ties with the United States.
Six hours after the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit officially ended in Manila, no customary joint statement had been issued and it was unclear whether there was agreement over including references to China’s militarization and island-building in the hotly disputed waterway.
ASEAN references to the South China Sea issue typically do not name China. Beijing is extremely sensitive to anything it perceives as a veiled reference to its expansion of its seven manmade islands in the Spratly archipelago, including with hangers, runways, radars and missiles.
This year’s summit comes at a time of uncertainty about U.S. interests in the region and whether it will maintain its maritime presence to counter Chinese assertiveness that has often put the region on edge.
A spokesman for the Philippines foreign ministry said a statement would be issued on Saturday.
Two ASEAN diplomatic sources earlier on Saturday told Reuters that Chinese embassy representatives in Manila had sought to influence the content of the communique.
The sources said the Chinese officials had lobbied the Philippines to keep tacit references to Beijing’s island-building and arming of artificial islands out of the statement.
But an unpublished draft dated Friday and seen by Reuters included the term “land reclamation and militarization”, which were not featured in a draft two days earlier. The diplomats said four ASEAN member states had objected to it being omitted.
China is not a member of ASEAN and was not attending the summit. China’s embassy in Manila could not be reached and its foreign ministry did not respond to request for comment.
The content of Friday’s draft would indicate ASEAN was resisting…