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US lauds ASEAN stand on sea row despite 'tremendous pressure'

U.S. State Secretary Rex Tillerson, center, applauds after linking arms with ASEAN Foreign Ministers during the 10th Lower Mekong Initiative Ministerial Meeting part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum in Manila, Philippines, Sunday Aug. 6, 2017. Mohd Rasfan/Pool via AP

MANILA, Philippines — Washington welcomed the joint communique issued by the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations addressing the South China Sea issue.

In their joint communique issued last Sunday, the ASEAN foreign ministers emphasized non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities in the disputed South China Sea.

US Department of State Heather Nauert said that the ASEAN's language on the disputed waters reflects the regional bloc's role in strengthening the rules-based order.

"The communique also emphasized the peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, such as the July 2016 decision of the tribunal, which is binding on China and the Philippines as provided in – and I want to just get the language right, so bear with me here – as is provided in the Law of the Sea Convention," Nauert said in a media briefing in Washington Wednesday.

The joint communique appeared to be stronger than its draft which did not mention "land reclamation."

Earlier this week, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano admitted that he did not want to include land reclamation in the final statement. Vietnam, a co-claimant in the South China Sea, led the push for a stronger statement on the contested waters.

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The US Department of State official also welcomed the Southeast Asian foreign ministers' reaffirmation of the importance of freedom of navigation.

"ASEAN was under tremendous pressure, but still held on to its principles," Nauert said.

She stressed that the US shares concerns over the developments in the region that they consider to be "unconducive to regional stability, such as land reclamation."

Contrary to the statements of Cayetano and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that Beijing has stopped reclaiming in the South China Sea, a Washington-based think tank released satellite imagery showing that Beijing did not stop its reclamation activities in mid-2015.

According to Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Beijing continues to reclaim in the Paracel Islands, the most recent examples are at Tree Island and North Island.

"The South China Sea doesn’t only include the Spratly Islands, and for Vietnam, developments on the disputed Paracels are just as destabilizing," AMTI said.

RELATED: Photos disprove China's claim of halting land reclamation

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