Southeast Asia feuds over South China Sea

A final copy of the framework seen by The Associated Press also did not mention whether the code should be legally binding, which most ASEAN states demand but China opposes, or the extent of disputed areas to be covered by such a code.

Critics say the outline of key principles is lopsidedly in China's favor and suspect that Beijing may have consented to it to divert protests as it tries to complete and fortify man-made islands in the South China Sea with a missile defense system.

Asean ties with the United States, under President Donald Trump, have been in flux, as questions linger over Washington's commitment to maritime security and trade in Asia, diminishing the grouping's bargaining power with Beijing.

ASEAN's deadlock over the statement highlights China's growing influence on the grouping at a time of uncertainty over the new U.S. administration's security priorities and whether it will try to keep China's maritime activities in check.

The ministers had been debating for at least two days on how to respond to China collectively, with Vietnam said to be strongly resisting an agreement on the framework for a code of conduct as pushed by Beijing.

Just as the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) meeting is slated to begin, Vietnam took a bold step and targeted China for its expansionist policies in South China Sea.

China's territorial disputes in the strategic and potentially oil- and gas-rich waterway with Taiwan and ASEAN member states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam intensified after Beijing built islands in the disputed waters in recent years and reportedly started to install a missile defense system on them, alarming rival claimant states as well as the USA and other Western governments.

"This will not only benefit our two countries, but also show the world the bright future of more positive, more predictable and more sustainable relations between our two countries", Wang said at a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

"There's still no consensus", one of the diplomats said earlier in the day, adding the disagreements over the wordings on the sea issue were holding up the release of the communique. Vietnam is on its own to have stronger language on the South China Sea.

Vietnam sought mention of respect for "sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction" not only in accordance with worldwide law, but more specifically, UNCLOS.

Experts say the uncertain future USA commitment to Asia leaves Vietnam in the most exposed position, as it has competing claims with China and relies on imports from its neighbor.

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in goods pass every year.

While some have dismissed the framework as another attempt to move the goalposts in the definitive South China Sea COC negotiations, the framework represents a breakthrough for ASEAN centrality, which has been on display since a meeting in Bali earlier this year decided on the creation of a "zero draft". Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

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