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ASEAN Decides To Simply Not Discuss China & South China Sea In Widely Anticipated Meeting

July 26, 2016

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) made up of 10 southeast Asian countries, in one of the more widely anticipated meetings decided to do a whole lot of nothing.

Foreign ministers from ten countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met in the capital of Laos and deliberated for several hours over three sessions on Sunday.

On Monday ASEAN decided not to discuss on how to deal with China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. They decided to deal with it by not dealing with it. They dropped a U.S.-backed proposal to discuss the U.N. maritime court ruling against China’s claims in the South China Sea.

Currently, four countries in ASEAN say they have claims to the South China Sea.

Previously over the weekend, diplomats said that a consensus to discuss the U.N. court ruling couldn’t be reached because Cambodia, China’s best ASEAN ally, didn’t want to criticize China. Some nations have accused China of forming pacts with some members of ASEAN causing the group to be divided on the issue of claims to the South China Sea.

The stalemate was only broken when the Philippines withdrew its request to discuss the rulings of the U.N.-backed proposal at the meeting over the weekend after facing objections from Cambodia. Both the Philippines and Vietnam were in favor of the ruling.

The U.S. had previously urged ASEAN to discuss the U.N-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling which was made on July 12. In the legal dispute against China, Manila came out on top.

At the end of ASEAN meetings, foreign ministers usually issue a joint press statement, aka ‘communique’. The difficult choice was whether or not to include a reference to the claims to the South China Sea. Cambodia was accused of preventing a response to the U.N backed tribunal which damaged China’s claims to the South China Sea.

For ASEAN, their main principle is that a decision has to be reached by consensus and any nation in the gathering can veto a proposal. In this case, Cambodia vetoed.

A press statement after the first session said the ministers had a “candid and constructive exchange of views on regional and international issues … as well as developments in the Middle East, Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea.”

The nation’s met to discuss climate change, terrorism, security and other issues, but the topic of the U.N-backed tribunal was the most discussed.

“I think ASEAN and China have a wider picture than the South China Sea, and we will be working for the issuance of the joint communique,” Aung Lynn, the director-general of Myanmar’s ASEAN Affairs Department told reporters.

For the second time in the group’s history, the group failed to issue a joint statement. In 2012, Cambodia blocked a reference to the dispute, and as a result, they failed to issue a statement for the first time in the bloc’s history.

“We remain seriously concerned about recent and ongoing developments and took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region,” the ASEAN communique said.

Separately, in a statement, China and ASEAN said that they would not not take part in activities that would worsen or escalate disputes, including inhabiting any uninhabited islands in the South China Sea.