- Associated Press - Sunday, August 6, 2017

MANILA, Philippines (AP) - Disagreements over North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile tests and territorial disputes in the South China Sea prevented the region’s foreign ministers from promptly issuing their joint communique after an annual gathering in Manila, two Southeast Asian diplomats said Sunday.

One of the diplomats told The Associated Press that Cambodia expressed concern over the issuance by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ foreign ministers of a separate statement criticizing North Korea’s two ICBM tests last month.

Cambodia wanted its sentiments on the Korean Peninsula better reflected in the ASEAN foreign ministers’ joint communique, stalling its issuance Saturday after the ministers concluded their meeting, the diplomat said, adding that Cambodia’s stance may have been influenced by China.

Both Cambodia and North Korea are China’s allies.

Washington has asked countries, including the ASEAN member states, to help isolate North Korea diplomatically to force it to stop provocative acts. While China agrees with sanctions on the North, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Sunday that they should be aimed at forcing Pyongyang to return to negotiations aimed at taming its nuclear ambitions.

“Sanctions are needed, but by no means the ultimate goal,” Wang, who is in Manila for the talks with the ASEAN ministers, said in a statement posted on the Chinese foreign ministry’s website.

“The purpose is to bring the peninsula nuclear issue back to the negotiating table and find a solution through negotiations until the realization of nuclear-free peninsula,” Wang said.

The escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula and efforts by Washington to isolate Pyongyang diplomatically, the long-seething disputes in the South China Sea and alarm over Islamic extremism amid the siege of a southern Philippine city by Islamic State group-linked militants dominated the ministerial talks.

A Philippine government spokesman, Robespierre Bolivar, had said the ministers’ joint communique would be issued promptly on Saturday. He took back the announcement later and said the communique may be made public with other statements on Tuesday.

Another diplomat said that wordings on the South China Sea issue to be included in the communique had not yet been finalized, with Vietnam reiterating its position that ASEAN should cite regional concerns over China’s land reclamation and construction of its man-made islands.

The 10-nation ASEAN may reach an agreement on how to depict its concern on the territorial disputes faster with language that will not include sensitive issues that China objects to, the diplomat said. All the ministers have acknowledged Beijing’s crucial economic and trade relations with each of their countries, the diplomat said.

Both diplomats spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issues publicly.

China has steadfastly opposed any mention in ASEAN statements of its island building in the disputed waters, its reported installation of a missile defense system on the new features and an arbitration ruling that invalidated Beijing’s historical claims to the strategic waters.

Although it’s not an ASEAN member, China can exert its influence on allies like Cambodia to reject any move it deems inimical to its interest. An unwieldy bloc of democracies, monarchies and authoritarian regimes, ASEAN decides by consensus, meaning just one member state can shoot down any proposal.

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