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ASEAN 'united' over South China Sea

AAP logoAAP 26/07/2016 By Lauren Farrow, AAP Southeast Asia correspondent

Indonesia has rejected criticism that the ongoing dispute in the South China Sea has highlighted weaknesses within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), saying they remain "united".

Critics have taken aim at a joint statement released by ASEAN and China late on Monday after days of talks at a meeting in Laos and a deadlock over what they would publicly present.

The meeting has marked the first time foreign ministers from the region have met since the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration handed down its decision into the dispute between the Philippines and China, dismissing the latter's "historic rights" to vast swathes of the South China Sea.

While Monday's joint statement referred to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and freedom of navigation, Australian National University defence and strategic expert Dr John Blaxland said it was not the acknowledgment by China of the recent ruling that some countries wanted.

"After such a significant ruling for there to be no mention of it, it is a palpable indicator of the powerlessness of ASEAN," Dr Blaxland told AAP on Tuesday.

It also showed a "disturbing" push by China to continue pressing harder on the issue, by "ratcheting up the pressure" on those states, such as Cambodia and Laos, that are "effectively beholden" to it, he argued.

While he noted ASEAN's statements on the South China Sea had been "circumspect" in the past few years, Monday's communication showed how little clout countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia had on the issue.

"Their voices are shouted down. It's happened before, it has happened in other forums, but it confirms the trend," he said.

But Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said a joint communique about the situation in the South China Sea, which was published at the same time as the statement with China, portrayed unity within the region.

"This agreement is one proof that during hard times, ASEAN could unite and step forward to maintain its common house and interest," she said on Tuesday.

"(The) joint communique has also firmly stated ASEAN countries' commitment to maintain peace, security and stability in the region ... (and) to fully respect legal and diplomatic processes in accordance to international laws."

The ASEAN meeting of foreign ministers, held in the Laos capital Vientiane, also discussed a number of other issues, including unregulated fishing in the region, trade and tourism.

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