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International relations

ASEAN reiterates 'concern' over South China Sea in draft statement

10 members express support for North Korean denuclearization

ASEAN is trying to stick to its "balance diplomacy" in dealing with China and the U.S., but it is harder to keep a comfortable distance in the current political climate. (Photo by Katsuhiko Hara)

SINGAPORE -- The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are planning again to voice their "concern" about the situation in the South China Sea in a joint statement to be released after Tuesday's summit in Singapore.

"We discussed the matters relating to the South China Sea and took note of some concerns on the land reclamations and activities in the area," according to a draft statement Nikkei has obtained.

The phrasing in the final joint statement may still be changed if the leaders decide not to use the word "concern" at the last minute. The word is politically sensitive and member countries would be keen to stick to ASEAN's so-called "balance diplomacy," in which the bloc tries to keep a comfortable distance with both the U.S. and China. 

But such a neutral stance has become harder to maintain after tensions between the U.S. and China grew over trade and geopolitical issues this year.

For years, China has been building artificial islets in the shallow body of water. More recently, it has been constructing military infrastructure on the outposts.

On the other hand, Beijing has been softening its approach toward ASEAN as it vies with the U.S. for allies in the region. ASEAN and China conducted an inaugural joint maritime exercise in October near China.

The word "concern" was struck off the joint statement about China's stance in the South China Sea when Philippines was ASEAN chair in 2017, as President Rodrigo Duterte's government improved ties with Beijing. But it reappeared in the joint statement adopted at the last ASEAN summit this April after Singapore took over as chair. 

The draft seen by Nikkei also contains words about North Korea's nuclear missile program. "We reiterated our commitment to the full implementation of all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions and international efforts to bring about the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," according to the draft.

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