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US: South China Sea to remain major issue in ASEAN meet

US Acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton said that the South China Sea has not in any way dropped off as a major issue in the upcoming East Asia Summit. Xinhua

MANILA, Philippines — Washington stressed that the South China Sea dispute will remain a focus of discussion in Manila as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attends the East Asia Summit and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministerial Meetings next week.

As he visits Manila for the first time, Tillerson is expected to meet with his ASEAN counterparts to discuss a range of issues including the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, maritime security and counterterrorism.

Susan Thornton, Acting Assistant Secretary of the US Department of State Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said that the US will continue to push for a language making it clear that they are dedicated to defending freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.

"It’ll certainly be a focus of the discussion also in Manila, and I think this has been – if there’s a perception that it’s dropped off, it’s only probably because the North Koreans keep shooting missiles and doing – and undertaking other provocations that knock this kind of out of the front of people’s minds," Thornton said in a teleconference on Wednesday.

RELATED: US moves to have North Korea suspended from ASEAN | Philippines rejects US call for North Korea expulsion

Thornton noted that Washington has had a number of conversations with allies and partners in the region who have expressed concerns over the recent developments in the region.

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She stressed that the US will press for due regard for legal processes, dispute resolution mechanisms and uphold international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The draft joint communique of the ASEAN foreign ministers, however, failed to express concerns over the militarization on China's man-made islands in the disputed waters.

The US has welcomed the draft framework of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, which will be adopted during the ASEAN-China Ministerial Meeting on Sunday.

"The framework is really just the outline of what would be the content of the agreement and the agreement still needs to be negotiated, and we would like to see it negotiated expeditiously and we would also like to see the eventual code of conduct contain effective measures to – for restraint and for dispute resolution, and also that the – whatever the agreement eventually contains, that the content be considered by all parties to be legally binding," Thornton said.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) clarified that the watered-down draft statement on China may still change as ASEAN foreign ministers meet in Manila this week.

"There is every likelihood that it could still evolve. They will be meeting over the next few days and as always, one of the agenda items would be to discuss the outcome of the documents including the joint communique," DFA spokesperson Rob Bolivar told reporters.

READ: DFA: 'Soft' draft ASEAN statement on sea row could still evolve

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