MANILA -- Leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations did not express concern over the militarization of the South China Sea earlier in the week, according to the chairman's statement that the Philippines released on Thursday.
The document represents a clear diplomatic victory for China, which has undertaken massive reclamation and construction projects in the dispute-heavy waterway. Previous summit statements noted concerns "expressed by some" leaders regarding the issue.
"We discussed the matters relating to the South China Sea and took note of the improving relations between ASEAN and China," the statement says. "In this regard, we are encouraged by the adoption of the framework of the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea (COC), which will facilitate the work and negotiation for the conclusion of a substantive and effective COC."
China and ASEAN nations Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines have overlapping claims in the vital waterway, through which $3 trillion to $5 trillion worth of trade passes.
The disputatious parties have markedly toned down their rhetoric since the Philippines this year took over chairman duties of Southeast Asia's regional bloc. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to power last year, set aside a maritime dispute in exchange for billions of dollars worth of economic deals with China. On Sunday, a day before the ASEAN summit took place, Duterte said the maritime dispute is "better left untouched."