EXCLUSIVE: ASEAN drops arbitration reference from Chairman's statement

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 28) — The latest draft of the ASEAN Chairman's statement obtained by CNN Philippines no longer includes the phrase "full respect for legal and diplomatic processes", which China interpreted to refer to the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling.

The document, coming from sources privy to its drafting, now states, "We took note of the serious concerns expressed by some Leaders over recent developments and escalation of activities in the area, which may further raise tensions and erode trust and confidence in the region."

It further reaffirmed the importance of enhancing mutual trust and confidence, the exercise of self-restraint in the area, and avoiding actions such as land reclamation and militarization.

The statement also acknowledges, "the improvement of bilateral relations between some ASEAN member states and China".

ASEAN officials rewrote the acknowledgment of international law to specify the 1982 United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

It now reads "in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)."

Related: Duterte-Widodo joint statement focuses on trade, security

Sources said the change was requested by the Chinese embassy in Manila this week. China had interpreted the term "legal and diplomatic processes" as a reference to the July 12, 2016 ruling by the international arbitral tribunal in The Hague, which declared unlawful Beijing's nine-dashed line claim that eats up almost the entire South China Sea, and affirmed Manila's sovereign rights to its exclusive economic zone.

The drafting team asked the Chinese embassy to give an alternative phrase. China submitted one, but it was rejected by the team.

Related: Duterte will not bring up arbitral ruling in ASEAN summit

CNN Philippines asked the Chinese embassy to comment on this, but it has not yet replied.

Despite the arbitral ruling, relations between the Philippines and China have become warmer, with Duterte making a state visit to China last October.

The ASEAN Chairman's Statement is intended to reflect the discussion during the summit, which is attended by the heads of state or government. As this year's Chairman, the Philippines wields strong influence on the contents of the document.

Observers have criticized ASEAN for having failed to support the arbitration ruling and for not taking a strong, united stand against China's expansionism in the disputed waters.

The regional bloc is working on a framework for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. The Department of Foreign Affairs says they want to finish the framework during the Philippines' chairmanship, preferably by June.

This story was updated on April 29, 2017 to reflect the latest draft statement