By Manuel Mogato
MANILA (Reuters) - Southeast Asian foreign ministers failed to release a customary communique at the end of a high-level meeting on Saturday after what diplomats said was a lack of consensus about how to refer to disputes in the South China Sea.
The South China Sea has long been the most thorny issue for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with different opinions among its 10 members on how to address China's assertiveness and its building and heavy arming of its artificial islands in disputed waters.
Philippine foreign ministry spokesman Robespierre Bolivar gave no reason for the delay and said the statement would instead be released at the end of a series of regional events hosted by Manila in the next few days.
"The communique will be issued together with all the chairman's statements by the end of all the meetings," he said.
ASEAN's problem in agreeing the wording highlight China's growing influence at a time of uncertainty whether the new U.S. administration will prioritise relations with ASEAN, and try to check Beijing's controversial maritime activities.
Diplomats from three ASEAN countries said the delay was because Vietnam, which is among four members with competing sovereignty claims with China, wanted the text to mention the need to avoid land reclamation and militarisation.
A working draft of the communique seen on Thursday was a watered-down version of one issued last year and drops references to both.
China is extremely sensitive about ASEAN mentioning its expansion of its military capabilities on those islands and some members are concerned about possible repercussions of upsetting Beijing given its military and economic power.
Three of China's seven reclaimed reefs have runways several kilometres long, radar, surface-to-air missiles and storage facilities for fighter jets.
"It's only Vietnam holding out. Maybe, by tomorrow everything will be ironed out," said one diplomat involved in the drafting process.
What ASEAN countries could on Saturday agree on was that tensions on the Korean peninsula stemming from North Korean long-range missile tests seriously threaten global peace and security.
Taking a stronger tone than previous statements on the standoff, they called for North Korea to comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions on its nuclear programme, and make a positive contribution to regional peace.
North Korea's tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), are expected to dominate Monday's ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which gathers 27 foreign ministers - including those of Russia, Japan, the United States, China and North and South Korea - to discuss security issues.
North Korea is determined to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States and officials in Washington say its latest test a week ago showed it may be able to reach most of the country.
"We strongly call upon (North Korea) as a participant of the ASEAN Regional Forum, to positively contribute to realise the ARF vision to maintain the Asia-Pacific as a region of lasting peace, stability, friendship and prosperity," ASEAN said.
The ASEAN position is short of the tougher line urged by the United States, which wanted it to downgrade relations with the already isolated nation.
Some Asian countries, including South Korea, are hoping to have bilateral talks with North Korea's foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho.
"If there is a chance, I would tell him that we must have dialogue and that the North must stop the continuous provocations," South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha told reporters in Manila.
The U.N. Security Council was set to vote on Saturday on a U.S.-drafted resolution that aims to slash by a third North Korea's $3 billion annual export revenue over Pyongyang's two ICBM tests in July.
North Korea's foreign ministry on Saturday said it had briefed diplomats of Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia in Pyongyang earlier in the week about the "resounding success" of its latest ICBM test.
(Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales in MANILA and Joyce Lee and Yuna Park in SEOUL; Writing by Martin Petty)