ASEAN gives Beijing a pass on South China Sea dispute, cites 'improving cooperation'
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders link arms during the opening ceremony of the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines April 29, 2017. L-R: Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei Darussalam, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Laos' Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith. Reuters

Southeast Asian leaders wrapped up a summit on Saturday by taking a softer stance on the disputes in the South China Sea. According to chairman's statement, the summit avoided tacit references to China's building and arming of its man-made islands.

The softened statement comes as the current Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) chairman, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, seeks to bury the hatchet with China after years of wrangling over its maritime assertiveness, including its four-year blockade of the Scarborough Shoal.

A final ASEAN statement, which was not made available until Sunday, dropped the references to "land reclamation and militarization" included in the text issued at last year's meeting in Laos and an earlier, unpublished version seen by Reuters on Saturday.

In the statement, the four ASEAN members, who the diplomats said had wanted a firmer position, had agreed to the more conciliatory tone in the statement. Although China is not a member of ASEAN, but, it is extremely sensitive to the content of its statements. Beijing considers the statement to be a barometer of the bloc's dissent over its artificial islands in disputed waters.

The Chinese embassy in Manila could not be reached for any comment in this regard. On the other hand, when contacted the foreign ministry did not respond to request for comment on Saturday.

The ASEAN statement also noted "the improving cooperation between ASEAN and China", and did not include references to "tensions" or "escalation of activities" seen in earlier drafts and in last year's text. It noted some leaders' concerns about "recent developments".

China has reacted angrily to the members, who expressed their concern about its rapid reclamation of reefs in the Spratly archipelago and its installation of missile systems on them. Some experts believe that Beijing is now capable of deploying combat aircraft on several of its manmade features.

On Sunday, an ASEAN diplomat said the statement was a genuine representation of the atmosphere of the Manila meetings. "We respected the Philippines' views and cooperated with the Philippines as this year's chair," the diplomat said. "It clearly reflected how the issue was discussed."

The chairman's statement issued on Sunday made no mention to the arbitration case.

However, it did include in a section separate to the South China Sea chapter the need to show "full respect for legal and diplomatic processes" in resolving disputes.

Underlining Beijing's sensitivity about the arbitration case, the two diplomatic sources who spoke to Reuters on Saturday said Chinese embassy officials had lobbied behind the scenes for that sentence to be dropped, and saw it as a veiled reference to the ruling.