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US backs ASEAN despite silence on sea ruling

Visiting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gestures during his joint news conference with his Philippine counterpart Perfecto Yasay Jr. at the Department of Foreign Affairs Wednesday, July 27, 2016 , in Pasay City, Philippines. Kerry is the highest US official to visit the country since the inauguration of new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. AP/Bullit Marquez

MANILA, Philippines — United States State Secretary John Kerry supported on Wednesday the joint communiqué issued by Southeast Asian nations that has been criticized for failing to mention the arbitral tribunal's decision favorable to the Philippines over its claims against China.

Kerry, who is in Manila for bilateral meetings and to pay a courtesy call on newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte, said the statements of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations did not lack affirmation for "every single principles, every single value of the rule of law.

"The decision itself is a binding decision," Kerry said at a joint press conference with Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. "But we're not trying to create a confrontation, we're trying to create a solution, mindful of the rights of the people that are established under the law."

The ASEAN foreign ministers held three rounds of talks on Sunday in Vientiane, Laos, but could not reach a consensus on whether to chide China over its expansive claims over the South China Sea. China has seen to be putting pressure on Laos and Cambodia, which analysts say put more importance on their relations with China over their ASEAN membership.

Backing Yasay, who earlier Wednesday said the communiqué was a victory for ASEAN, Kerry said the statement opens up more possibilities for peaceful means such as negotiations among rival maritime claimants.

"I believe that was a communiqué that helps perhaps to move people to the kind of discussion that could bring about a conclusion, but it's still as mindful of what we believe is the impact and judgment of that decision itself," Kerry said.

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'Legally binding'

Asked if the apparent silence of the ASEAN on the verdict issued under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea renders its ineffective in the region, Kerry said it is "impossible for it to be irrelevant."

"It's legally binding and it's obviously a decision of the court that is recognized under international law," Kerry said.

The verdict was handed down on July 12 agreeing with nearly all of the Philippines's arguments. China, however, has repeatedly said that it will not recognize the ruling as it insists on bilateral negotiations with the Philippines outside the tribunal's pronouncements.

"(The ruling) has to be part of the calculation and I am confident that our friends in the Philippines will make their judgments about their negotiating position is and how to proceed forward," Kerry said.

Duterte supports the revival of talks with China and expressed his respect for the decision in his first State of the Nation Address on Monday.

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