Southeast Asian nations failed to find common ground on maritime disputes in the South China Sea on Sunday after Cambodia stuck to its demand the group make no reference to an international court ruling against Beijing in a statement, diplomats said.
Foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met for the first time since the U.N.-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague handed an emphatic legal victory to the Philippines in the maritime dispute earlier this month.
The ruling denied China's sweeping claims in the strategic seaway, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes each year.
China claims most of the sea, but ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei all have rival claims. Beijing says the ruling has no bearing on its rights in the sea, and described the case as a farce.
The Philippines and Vietnam both wanted the communique issued by ASEAN foreign ministers to refer to the ruling and the need to respect international law, ASEAN diplomats said on Sunday. Their foreign ministers both discussed the ruling in the closed-door meeting with ASEAN counterparts in Laos on Sunday, sources said.
But in the run up to the meeting, China's closest ASEAN ally Cambodia has put up opposition to mentioning the ruling, throwing the group into disarray. Cambodia supports China's opposition to an ASEAN stand on the South China Sea, and Beijing's preference for dealing with the disputed claims on a bilateral basis.
First deadlock since 2012
Cambodia's foreign minister Prak Sokhon declined to comment on his country's position on Sunday.
Despite a late night meeting of foreign ministers called to thrash out the issue late on Saturday, the region's top diplomats were unable to find a compromise.
ASEAN is now facing the prospect of being unable to issue a statement after a meeting for only the second time in its 49-year history. The first time, in 2012, was also due to Cambodia's resistance to language around the South China Sea.
"We have been here before and I hope they can solve it," said one official from the ASEAN Secretariat in Indonesia. "It is the same story again, a repeat of the meeting in 2012."
The group has given itself until Tuesday to come to an agreement and issue a statement, said one ASEAN diplomat. Over the next two days, ASEAN members will meet with China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Wang, who started bilateral meetings with ASEAN members on Sunday, declined to talk to reporters on arrival in Vientiane.
Japan's Foreign Minister Fumiko Kishida will also be in Laos for the ASEAN regional forum meeting. It is unclear if he will meet Wang, but China reacted angrily to Kishida saying he would discuss the sea if they do meet.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang, in a statement posted on the ministry's website, said the sea is not Japan's concern.
"We urge Japan not to hype up and meddle in the South China Sea issue," he said. "Japan is not a concerned party in the South China Sea, and because of its disgraceful history is in no place to make irresponsible comments about China."
The United States, allied to the Philippines and cultivating closer relations with Vietnam, has called on China to respect the court's ruling.
It has criticized China's building of artificial islands and facilities in the sea and has sailed warships close to the disputed territory to assert freedom of navigation rights.
But Kerry will urge ASEAN nations to explore diplomatic ways to ease tension over Asia's biggest potential military flashpoint, a senior U.S. official said ahead of his trip.
Chinese state media called for "damage control" at the meetings. A commentary published by the official Xinhua news agency on Sunday said the court ruling was a "blow to peace and stability in the region.... and only serves to increase the likelihood of confrontation and turbulence."
Barack Obama is set in September to become the first U.S. president to visit Laos, attending an annual summit hosted by the country that holds the ASEAN chairmanship.