Beijing: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations issued, then swiftly retracted a tough statement on tensions in the South China Sea that may have offended meeting host China, underscoring sensitivity over the increasingly heated territorial disputes in the region.
The statement from the 10-nation regional bloc was issued Tuesday night following a China-Asean meeting in the southern Chinese city of Yuxi called in part to discuss tensions in the crucial waterway.
The group "cannot ignore what is happening in the South China Sea as it is an important issue in the relations and cooperation between ASEAN and China," the statement said.
"We expressed our 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 statement was issued by Malaysia's Foreign Ministry on Tuesday night to an online chat group, which also sent out the retraction. It was not clear whether an amended statement would be issued, although individual members such as Singapore had issued their own mentioning concerns about the South China Sea.
While the original statement made no direct accusations against China, it referred to sensitivity over land reclamation in a nod to China's creation of man-made islands and the building of airstrips and other infrastructure. The moves are widely seen as an effort to strengthen China's claims to virtually the entire South China Sea by changing its actual geography and boosting forward troop deployments.
"We emphasised the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation, which may raise tensions in the South China Sea," the statement said.
It is unusual for Asean to employ such strong language over any regional issue given divisions within the 10-member grouping that includes four countries — Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines — that directly claim South China Sea islands and waters that China considers its sovereign territory. China's claim also overlaps with the exclusive economic zone of a fifth member, Indonesia.
The bloc also includes Cambodia and Lao, smaller states over which China exercises considerable influence. They are seen as speaking for China over its insistence that territorial disputes be dealt with through bilateral talks between the nations involved rather than between China and Asean as a whole.
China has rejected outside mediation in the issue, denouncing and refusing to take part in a case brought before an international arbitration panel by the Philippines challenging the applicability of Beijing's territorial claim under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had been at pains on Tuesday to emphasise consensus on the issue, although he ended up appearing alone at a delayed news conference instead of alongside his Singaporean counterpart as expected.
While the incident involving the Asean statement wasn't widely reported in China's entirely state-controlled media, the official newspaper Global Times issued an editorial accusing foreign media coverage of manufacturing the controversy.
"Did Asean slap China's face over the South China Sea? Western media crazy thinking," the editorial's headline read.