SOUTHEAST Asian leaders have reiterated the need to exercise "non-militarization" and "self-restraint" in a bid to defuse tensions among claimants of the South China Sea, according to the chairman's final statement on the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit.
The regional bloc, which groups 10 Southeast Asian Nations, also expressed "grave concern" over North Korea's missile tests," saying these "seriously threaten peace and stability" in the region.
In the same statement, the group also denounced the emergence of terrorism and violent extremism.
Member-states pledged to push for countermeasures to thwart potential threats from terror groups by engaging the people in preventive education, involving women and youth to counter hostile acts, and promoting peace and moderation in the region.
Asean groups the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Brunei, and Laos.
The regional bloc maintained its position to pursue a "peaceful resolution of disputes," in accordance with universally-recognized principles of international law and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
"We likewise reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, maritime safety and security, rules-based order and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea," said Duterte in the statement.
"In this regard, we further reaffirmed the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, emphasized the importance of non-militarization, and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states, including those mentioned in the DOC (Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea) that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea," he added.
China, Taiwan and four of Asean's member-states -- Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam -- have claimed ownership of the resource-rich South China Sea, which the Philippines prefers to call West Philippine Sea.
President Rodrigo Duterte, this year's chairperson of Asean, said heads of state of the 10 Asean member-states reaffirmed their commitment to resolve the maritime row through preventive measures "that could reduce tensions, and the risks of accidents, misunderstandings and miscalculation."
The Asean chair's statement said the Southeast Asian bloc emphasized the implementation of the DOC, which mandates self-restraint and non-militarization within the resource-rich region.
"We reaffirmed our commitment to the full and effective implementation of the DOC in its entirety, and the importance of undertaking confidence-building and preventive measures to enhance, among others, trust and confidence amongst parties," the statement said.
Southeast Asian leaders also expressed optimism that the regional bloc, along with China, would come up with a "substantive and effective" code of conduct (COC) in South China Sea, in order to resolve the territorial disputes.
The Asean and China adopted in August a framework for the COC in the South China Sea to improve the non-legally binding DOC of Parties in the contested waters.
"We discussed the matters relating to the South China Sea and took note of the improving relations between Asean and China and, in this regard, are encouraged by the adoption of the framework of the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea (COC), which will facilitate the work and negotiation for the conclusion of a substantive and effective COC," the Asean leaders said in a statement.
The legally-binding code of conduct aims to address the conflicting maritime claims in the South China Sea.
Asean member-states and China took a three-step process for the completion of an actual code of conduct -- adoption of the framework, discussion of modalities for the negotiation of code of conduct, and announcement of start of negotiation for actual, legally-binding document. (SunStar Philippines)