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Politics

Japan, US pressure China as ASEAN tiptoes around disputes

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, front left, at the East Asia Summit.   © Kyodo

VIENTIANE -- Japan and the U.S. on Thursday urged China to accept an international ruling against its claims in the South China Sea, only to be undercut by a lack of strong statements from countries directly involved in the disputes.

Leaders from 18 countries met here in the Laotian capital for the East Asia Summit. This marked the first time that nations involved in disputes over the waters met face to face since an international arbitral tribunal handed Beijing a sweeping defeat this July over its maritime claims.

Most countries expressed concerns over the situation in the South China Sea, a Japanese official at the meeting said. But members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations did not directly criticize China.

Even Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte remained silent on the issue. While his prepared statement distributed to attendees included a call for respect for the ruling, Duterte did not read the document out loud, according to diplomatic sources.

U.S. President Barack Obama called the ruling "legal and binding" in a post-summit news conference. Obama apparently stressed the importance of freedom of navigation and demilitarization in the South China Sea during the summit.

Japan was squarely on the U.S. side. "I am extremely concerned about the unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China seas," Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in an apparent swipe at Chinese provocations around the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims for itself as the Diaoyu.

"All parties must refrain from actions that would heighten tensions in the region, and pursue a peaceful solution based on international law," Abe added. The prime minister promised to work toward swift implementation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership regional trade agreement.

China, which continues to build islands and militarize in the South China Sea, appeared intent on ignoring the ruling and remained at odds with Japan and the U.S. on the issue throughout the summit. Premier Li Keqiang apparently stuck to the official line that maritime disputes should be settled by the countries involved without interference by outside parties.

A draft of the chairman's statement obtained by The Nikkei stressed the importance of peace and stability in the South China Sea. It urged that conflicts be resolved based on international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

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