ASEAN criticised land reclamation in the South China Sea as its leaders wrapped up their summit yesterday, saying that the reclamation had "eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability" in the disputed waters.
While it did not mention China by name, the chairman's statement said ASEAN leaders would task their foreign ministers to urgently and constructively address the matter, which was raised repeatedly by the Philippines at the summit hosted by Malaysia.
"We share the serious concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamation being undertaken in the South China Sea, which has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea.
In this regard, we instructed our foreign ministers to urgently address this matter constructively, including under the various ASEAN frameworks such as ASEAN-China relations," the statement said.
Malaysia, which holds the rotational chair for the 10-nation grouping this year, had been reluctant to criticise China at the summit, maintaining a non-confrontational approach to try to convince Beijing that instability in one of the world's busiest shipping routes would not be beneficial to any party.
The Chinese have been aggressively reclaiming land on the disputed Spratly Islands.
At a closing press conference, ASEAN chairman and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak admitted to differences in approach but said ASEAN would "not do anything to increase tension in the region".
Instead, Datuk Seri Najib - whose country is China's third-largest Asian trade partner - talked up support for Beijing's proposed "maritime Silk Road" to boost regional trade and investment.
Although the statement did not contain the ultimatum or direct censure of China that the Philippines had sought, it avoided the debacle in Cambodia in 2012, when the leaders failed to produce a joint communique, the first time in ASEAN's history.
That led to wide criticism of the grouping and its much-vaunted values of unity and solidarity, which appeared to have been eroded by China's growing international clout.
Manila accuses Beijing of violating international law and the 2002 Declaration of Conduct signed by all parties with overlapping claims in the South China Sea.
A new set of high-resolution images released last Saturday, the day before the start of the ASEAN summit, showed that in just 10 weeks from Feb 6, the Chinese had built an island on Subi Reef spanning more than 3km.
China is also expanding the landfill across the northern rim of Mischief Reef, along a relatively straight portion with dimensions that can also support a landing strip 3km long.
The latest images, taken on April 13 by satellite mapping firm DigitalGlobe and released by current affairs website The Diplomat, sparked alarm.
The Philippines warned that China had reclaimed enough land in two reefs on the Spratly island chain to muscle Manila out of the area and that the Chinese will soon take "de facto control" of the disputed waters unless ASEAN stands up to its big neighbour.
Apart from China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims in parts of the resource-rich South China Sea.
China 'concerned' over ASEAN position
China has expressed "serious concern" over the position adopted by ASEAN over its controversial land reclamation work in the South China Sea and stressed that its territorial disputes with ASEAN member states are not a matter of concern in its relationship with the regional grouping.
Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei yesterday told a media briefing that Beijing has already "exercised maximum self-restraint" over the South China Sea issue by working with other claimant states to ensure regional peace and stability, through dialogue and negotiations and in respect of history and international law.
"For long, freedom of navigation and overflight has not been affected and will not be affected in the future," he added.
Yesterday, an ASEAN statement said the reclamation has "eroded trust and confidence, and may undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea".
China, Taiwan and four ASEAN states - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - have competing claims in the resource-rich South China Sea.
Non-claimant states such as trade-dependent Singapore have expressed interest in peaceful resolution of the disputes to ensure freedom of navigation in the waters.
China's position is that the disputes should be settled bilaterally, but some ASEAN states prefer a collective effort against the Asian giant.
Concerns over potential regional strife have spiked with the latest satellite images showing how China's reclamation has accelerated since last year.
China's response has been to defend its reclamation as "lawful and reasonable" within its own territory, and it has accused unnamed countries of doing similar work in others' backyards.
But earlier this month, it gave an in-depth explanation - for the first time - that the facilities would be for military and civilian use.
Mr Hong yesterday reiterated China's defence of its reclamation, and repeated veiled criticisms of Manila's move - to get ASEAN to issue an ultimatum to China to stop its reclamation - as a bid to "hijack China-ASEAN relations" for self-interest.
This article was first published on April 29, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.