MANILA -- Southeast Asian countries have expressed concern over China's militarized artificial islands in the South China Sea but have reserved their opinions on whether a code of conduct for the disputed waters should be legally binding.
Foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations said they tackled the maritime dispute "extensively" during a meeting on Saturday, according to a joint communique released on Sunday night.
The region's top diplomats said they had taken "note of the concerns expressed by some Ministers on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region."
After affirming the importance of freedom of navigation through the South China Sea and overflight rights above it, the ministers emphasized the "importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states" in averting further tension.
ASEAN member states Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam all have claims to parts of the South China Sea that have put them at odds with Beijing.
China has laid claim to almost the entire South China Sea, a key channel through which some $5 trillion in global trade passes annually.
The joint communique is critical of China, which in recent years has reclaimed land to create and militarize seven artificial islands. Trenchant criticism of these manifestations was struck from the ASEAN chairman's statement delivered by President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines at a summit in April.
Since taking office last year, Duterte has rekindled economic relations with China and encouraged a friendlier tone in ASEAN statements on the South China Sea. The Philippines has been rewarded with promises of major aid and investment.
Vietnam has emerged as China's sternest critic in ASEAN on the South China Sea and has pressed for strong wording in collective statements. This led to protracted discussions on the final communique over the weekend. Hanoi lobbied for reference to a "legally binding" code of conduct, but this was set aside by other member states. ASEAN and China plan to begin discussions on formulating the code this year.
In the joint communique, ASEAN also expressed "grave concerns" over the tensions on the Korean Peninsula following two successful missile launches by North Korea last month and strongly urged Pyongyang to comply with all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions. The latest such resolution, which came on Saturday, significantly steps up economic sanctions against the isolated communist state.