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China scores key diplomatic win in South China Sea dispute

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations watered down their criticism of China's territorial claims in the South China Sea, after Cambodia opposed the communiqué's wording.

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Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan (l.) shakes hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (r.) before posing for a photo during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – China Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Vientiane, Laos, Monday, July 25, 2016. A highly anticipated meeting between Southeast Asian foreign ministers and their Chinese counterpart Wang Yi has begun in what is expected to be tense discussions on China's territorial expansion in the South China Sea.

Sakchai Lalit/AP

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In deference to China, Cambodia insisted that the Philippines and the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) avoid any mention of an international legal ruling on the South China Sea in a joint statement that the bloc issued Monday.

Instead, the 10-nation group published a communiqué that stressed the need to find peaceful resolutions to disputes in the South China Sea through international law. 

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"We remain seriously concerned about recent and ongoing developments and took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region," the communiqué said.

Cambodia’s demand that ASEAN refrain from mentioning the ruling shows the sway that China has over its neighbors about territorial disputes in the South China Sea, even if it erodes their own sovereignty, because of the economic significance of the sea lanes. The South China Sea carries more than $5 trillion in global trade through it each year.

"[Cambodia is] really loyalist of the big country C," a diplomat who attended ASEAN's closed meetings told the Associated Press, referring to China. "Cambodia is the villain déjà vu 2012."

In 2012, Cambodia also blocked a reference to the territorial dispute. The disagreement ended with the foreign ministers failing to issue a statement for the first time in its history.

A central principle of ASEAN is consensus. All foreign ministers must agree on any action or statement. Conversely, any minister can kill a proposal by vetoing it.

It was expected the bloc of Southeast Asian countries would capitalize on the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s July 12 ruling in the Hague. The court found China had no basis for its expansive claims to territorial waters around the Philippines. Many Chinese claims are the result of it building on top of reefs and rocky outcroppings to give it international rights to develop the waters surrounding these "islands." The court denied these claims, as well as invalidated much of what China’s called historic claims to the sea.

China has similar claims against other ASEAN nations, including Vietnam and Malaysia.

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It was thought ASEAN could capitalize on the ruling to further contest Chinese claims. These competing claims in the shipping lanes of the South China Sea are among the most contentious issues facing ASEAN.   

Yet Cambodia stalled the conference unless any mention of the ruling was excluded from an ASEAN statement. Instead, it reaffirmed China's call for bilateral discussions. China publicly thanked Cambodia.

In a separate statement, China and ASEAN reiterated a commitment to freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. They also said they would refrain from activities that would complicate or escalate disputes, including occupying uninhabited islands or reefs.

China criticized the "deeply flawed" Hague ruling and warned the United States to stay out of the dispute.

"It seems like certain countries from outside the region have got all worked up keeping the fever high," China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters.

On Monday, US National Security adviser Susan Rice also met with Chinese officials in Beijing, although the South China Sea was not raised in opening remarks.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.