Southeast Asian nations overcame days of deadlock on Monday when the Philippines dropped a request for their joint statement to mention a landmark legal ruling on the South China Sea, officials said, after objections from Cambodia.
Beijing publicly thanked Cambodia for supporting its stance on maritime disputes, a position which threw the regional block's weekend meeting in the Laos capital of Vientiane into disarray.
Competing claims with China in the vita shipping are among the most contentious issues for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with its 10 members pulled between their desire to assert their sovereignty while finding common ground and fostering political and commercial ties with Beijing.
China claims most of the sea, but ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei all have rival claims. In a ruling by the U.N.-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration on July 12, the Philippines won an emphatic legal victory over China on the dispute.
The Philippines and Vietnam both wanted the ruling, which denied China's sweeping claims in the strategic seaway that channels more than $5 trillion in global trade each year, and a call to respect international maritime law to feature in the communique.
Calling for bilateral discussions, Cambodia opposed the wording on the ruling, diplomats said.
Manila agreed to drop the reference to the ruling in the communique, one ASEAN diplomat said on Monday, in an effort to prevent the disagreement leading to the group failing to issue a statement.
The communique referred instead to the need to find peaceful resolutions to disputes in the South China Sea in accordance with international law, including the United Nations' law of the sea, to which the court ruling referred.
"We remain seriously concerned about recent and ongoing developments and took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region," the ASEAN communique said.
It was important to avoid militarisation of the region, and for freedom of navigation to be maintained, ASEAN said.
Beijing says the court ruling has no bearing on its rights in the sea, and described the case as a farce.
Cambodia's position was the right one and would safeguard unity of ASEAN and cooperation with China, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Cambodia's Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon, according to a statement posted on China's Foreign Ministry website early on Monday.
"China greatly approves of Cambodia and other ASEAN countries taking charge of impartiality and safeguarding fairness," Wang said.
China frequently blames the United States for raising tensions in the region and has warned regional rival Japan to steer clear of the dispute.
"We will not permit any outside force to seek to exploit and hype up the so-called South China Sea arbitration case and bring chaos to this region," Wang said.
MAJOR POWERS ARRIVE
The United States, allied with the Philippines and cultivating closer relations with Vietnam, has called on China to respect the court's ruling.
It has criticised China's building of artificial islands and facilities in the sea and has sailed warships close to the disputed territory to assert freedom of navigation rights.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Laos' capital on Monday. He is expected to discuss maritime issues in a meeting with Wang, as well as in meetings with ASEAN members.
Both are in town for the ASEAN regional forum and East Asia summits, which bring ASEAN diplomats together with the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and several other countries.
Kerry will urge ASEAN nations to explore diplomatic ways to ease tension over Asia's biggest potential military flashpoint, a senior U.S. official said ahead of his trip.
Barack Obama is set to become the first U.S. president to visit Laos, attending an annual summit in September.
Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is also in Laos, making her debut at ASEAN meetings as the foreign minister for Myanmar.