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Amid watered down statement, ASEAN ministers share South China Sea concern with Tillerson

Foreign ministers from Southeast Asia take their seats for a meeting with Secretary of State​ Rex Tillerson at the State Department in Washington, Thursday, May 4, 2017. AP/Jacquelyn Martin

MANILA, Philippines — Some Southeast Asian nations remain concerned over the militarization and land reclamation activities of Beijing in the South China Sea, according to the US Department of State.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently hosted a meeting with foreign ministers of member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Washington.

The meeting comes a few days after the conclusion of the 30th ASEAN Leaders' Summit in Manila.

US Department of State spokesperson Heather Nauert said that Tillerson and the ASEAN foreign ministers reaffirmed their adherence to a rules-based order in the Asia Pacific and to the common principles stipulated in the 2016 joint statement of the US-ASEAN Special Leaders' Summit.

"The Secretary noted shared concerns by many in the region regarding militarization and land reclamation in the South China Sea," Nauert said in a statement released Friday (Manila time).

In the "Sunnylands Declaration" issued in February last year, former US President Barack Obama and ASEAN leaders expressed stronger commitment to keeping peace in the South China Sea.

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READ: ‘Sea freedoms must be respected’ | US: No valid reason for China to restrict navigation in disputed sea

The leaders agreed to respect the sovereignty of every nation and abide by the rules provided for under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Tillerson and the ASEAN ministers shared the same commitment to adhering to peaceful resolution of disputes with full respect for legal and diplomatic processes and in accordance with international law, according to Nauert.

"The Secretary and the Ministers stressed the need for ASEAN Member States and China to ensure the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in its entirety, and took note of efforts towards the early conclusion of a meaningful Code of Conduct in the South China Sea," Nauert said.

Under Philippine chairmanship this year, the 10-member regional bloc released a statement weakening its resistance against Chinese activities in the South China Sea.

READ: Philippines goes easy on China in final ASEAN statement

President Rodrigo Duterte's chairman statement removed any mention of international concerns over China's "militarization" of newly built islands in the disputed waters.

The ruling of an international tribunal over the Philippines' complaint against China's nine-dash line claim over the South China Sea was also not mentioned in the final communique.

In July 2016, a United Nations-backed tribunal issued an award in favor of the Philippines, invalidating China's historic claims.

The Duterte administration, however, is keen on setting aside the arbitral ruling in talks with China.

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