BEIJING—Foreign ministers from Southeast Asia jointly voiced “serious concern” over rising tensions in the South China Sea, but their unusual show of unity against Beijing appeared to collapse just hours later as their statement was retracted.
Their comments came amid China’s diplomatic blitz to discredit a coming international legal ruling on territorial claims that is expected to deliver a setback for Beijing.
In a Tuesday statement issued after a meeting with China’s foreign minister, top diplomats from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations urged respect for international law in resolving disputes, a thinly veiled swipe at Beijing’s refusal to accept the ruling from an arbitration tribunal in The Hague.
In recent weeks, the U.S. and other governments have criticized Beijing for what they term as disregard for international maritime law. The Asean ministers’ comments conveyed an unusually strong tone for a 10-member bloc that has often been divided in its response to China’s growing assertiveness in regional maritime disputes.
Hours after the statement was issued, Malaysia’s foreign ministry said Asean was retracting the document to make some changes. No explanation was given, and as of late Tuesday evening the bloc still hadn’t issued an amended statement.
A senior diplomat from an Asean country later said that the bloc has decided not to issue a joint statement and member states would release individual statements if they desired. Before the retraction, Singapore and Indonesia’s foreign ministries had separately issued individual statements that echoed the key points in the Asean ministers’ joint proclamation.
Asean, which makes decisions by consensus, has in the past struggled to find a common voice on the South China Sea disputes. Some members advocate a tougher response against Beijing, while others are reluctant to antagonize a powerful economic partner. Such discord boiled over in 2012 when a meeting of Asean foreign ministers failed to yield a joint communiqué for the first time in the bloc’s history.
In the original statement, the Asean ministers expressed their “serious concerns over recent and ongoing developments, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and which may have the potential to undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea.”
The Asean foreign ministers didn’t explicitly blame China for stoking tensions or refer directly to The Hague tribunal, which is expected to rule within weeks on an arbitration case filed by the Philippines in 2013 to challenge Beijing’s sweeping maritime claims.
Instead they reiterated their opposition to “militarization” and land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea, in reference to Beijing’s efforts over the past two years to construct artificial islands with facilities that could serve military purposes. The Asean ministers also called for compliance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, under which The Hague tribunal was set up.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking at a televised news briefing, didn’t refer directly to the arbitration case, but said that China and the Philippines explained their respective positions on the dispute during Tuesday’s meeting.
“The differences between China and the Philippines are well-known to all, but this isn’t an issue between China and Asean,” Mr. Wang said. “Cooperation between China and Asean is far greater than any specific discord, including the South China Sea dispute.”
China has dismissed The Hague tribunal as illegitimate and boycotted its proceedings. In recent weeks, Beijing has stepped up efforts to discredit the tribunal, for instance, by urging friendly countries to support its position on the South China Sea, where Chinese claims overlap those from five other governments, including the Philippines.
Instead of third-party arbitration, Chinese officials have long favored one-on-one talks with rival claimants, all of which are dwarfed by China militarily and economically. Beijing has said it won’t accept negotiations that rely on The Hague ruling and blamed the U.S. for hyping the issue as a pretext for advancing its military footprint in the region.
Tuesday’s meeting, held in the southern Chinese city of Yuxi, was first broached at a February gathering of Asean foreign ministers, according to diplomats from the regional bloc. Malaysia had proposed the meeting as a platform for voicing Asean concerns over recent developments in the South China Sea, the diplomats said.
The meeting ran over schedule, forcing organizers to delay Mr. Wang’s news briefing by five hours until Tuesday evening. Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who co-chaired the meeting with Mr. Wang, canceled his appearance at what had been billed as a joint briefing as he had to catch a flight home, the Chinese foreign ministry said in response to queries about the delays. Singapore’s foreign ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Analysts say Tuesday’s statement didn’t stray far from Asean’s past rhetoric, which also urged peaceful dialogue and avoided directly apportioning blame to China.
“The statement is still a product of a least-common-denominator approach, and is careful to allow for multiple interpretations,” said Aaron Connelly, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.
“The fact that the statement does not explicitly endorse the arbitral tribunal’s jurisdiction or encourage China to accept the tribunal’s ruling as binding on all parties suggests that Asean’s least common denominator remains fairly low,” Mr. Connelly said.
—Yantoultra Ngui in Kuala Lumpur and Ben Otto in Jakarta contributed to this article.
Write to Chun Han Wong at email@example.com