Foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations said they were “seriously concerned” about land reclamation in the South China Sea, where several member states are locked in territorial disputes with China.
The statement released late Thursday comes after days of discussions by the 10-member grouping that were dominated by tensions in the disputed waters, where China has been building artificial islands despite protests from other nations that also claim the territory.
Land reclamation in the South China Sea “has eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace,” the foreign ministers said in the joint statement in Kuala Lumpur. All parties should “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes.”
The ASEAN foreign ministers, who work by consensus, had struggled to agree on the language of the joint statement, delaying its release, according to Singapore Foreign Minister K Shanmugam. ASEAN has in the past been criticized for failing to take a united stance on key issues facing the region, including tensions in the South China Sea.
China, which is not an ASEAN member but is invited to take part in some of the meetings along with the U.S. and other nations, has reclaimed 2,000 acres of land in the Spratly islands, according to U.S. officials. A runway China is constructing on Fiery Cross Reef may reach 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) in length and be capable of landing a range of military aircraft, IHS Jane’s reported in April.
ASEAN members often tread carefully with China since much of the region is heavily dependent on investment and trade with its northern neighbor, which claims sovereignty over about 80 percent of the sea according to a 1940s map. China’s stepped up efforts to assert its control in recent years has prompted protests from ASEAN states such as the Philippines and Vietnam, with the U.S. calling for all sides to end construction.
The Philippines has taken its dispute with China to the United Nations for arbitration, a process China has declined to be involved in.
Thursday’s statement was similar to the one released by ASEAN’s leaders after their summit in April. Though the April document also failed to mention any country by name, China responded to it by expressing “serious concern” over the statement.
China agreed to talks with ASEAN over a code of conduct for the South China Sea in 2013, though little progress has been made. Thursday’s statement called for the “expeditious establishment” of the code of conduct.
’Eroding of trust’
ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh said Wednesday that land reclamation in the sea was complicating negotiations over such a code as well as the overall situation.
“There has been eroding of trust to find a solution for this issue,” he said. Still, ASEAN sees China as a “very important trading partner and we have our ambitious objectives of wanting to achieve trade at $500 billion by end of 2015 and $1 trillion by the year 2020. ASEAN also has ambitious plans to work with China in many other areas.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi traveled to Kuala Lumpur to meet with ASEAN ministers and each other.
Wang indicated a “readiness of China to try to resolve some of this, though I think, it still was not as fulsome as many of us would like to see,” Kerry told reporters Thursday. “It is a beginning, and it may open up some opportunity for conversation on this in the months ahead.”
Kerry said the “easiest thing” would be for all sides to agree not to do “anything except routine maintenance, no new buildings, no new facilities, no militarization, no more reclamation while the legal process is resolved.”
Wang said Wednesday that China has completed its reclamation work and anyone could fly a plane over the area and see. He also said China “is willing to see the U.S. play an active role” in Asia, though nations outside of the South China Sea region shouldn’t escalate tensions in the area.
In May, when a U.S. surveillance plane flew over the area with a CNN crew on board, the Chinese navy issued eight warnings for the flight to leave the area saying the aircraft was approaching a “military alert zone.”
While China says its artificial islands will be for civilian use -- from search-and-rescue operations to marine meteorological forecasting -- it also says they’d have military purposes, and it reserves the right to declare an air defense identification zone over the area.
The U.S. has said protecting freedom of navigation in the waters -- which host more than $5 trillion of shipping each year and are home to about a 10th of the world’s annual fishing catch -- is in its own national interest.