Asian leaders have played down tensions over the South China Sea in a carefully worded summit statement In Vientiane, Laos.

However, even before it was issued China voiced frustration on Thursday with countries outside the region “interfering” in tussles over the strategic waterway.

The lukewarm rebuke is a reflection of China’s diplomatic, economic and military clout within the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is spearheading the summit with the US, China and six other nations: Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

(L to R) Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chano-cha, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, U.S President Barack Obama, Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, Philippines Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak pose for photo during ASEAN-U.S. Summit in Vientiane, Laos September 8, 2016. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
By Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Manuel Mogato | VIENTIANE

Together they are attending the East Asia Summit in the Laotian capital.

The 10 ASEAN heads of state and the leaders of the six other countries together with US President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang “reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation in and over-flight in the South China Sea”.

Avoiding controversy

The draft of a statement to be issued in Vientiane papers over the regional strains caused by competing claims to areas of the strategically important sea.

“Several leaders remained seriously concerned over recent developments in the South China Sea,” says the draft.

The statement makes no reference to a July ruling by a court in The Hague that declared illegal some of China’s artificial islands in the sea and invalidated its claims to almost the entire waterway.

Nevertheless, Obama said on Thursday the Hague ruling had helped clarify maritime rights.

“I recognise this raises tensions but I also look forward to discussing how we can constructively move forward together to lower tensions,” he said at a summit meeting.