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PHNOM PENH – ASEAN leaders struggled Thursday to hammer out a final communique at a gathering in Cambodia due to splits in their views on the South China Sea, officials said, admitting that tempers had flared.
"Most of the ASEANs acknowledge that the institution is under enormous pressure and stress right now to maintain unity as it confronts very serious challenges, primarily associated with the South China Sea," a US official said.
The 10-member Southeast Asian bloc was trying to draw up a final joint statement, but it has floundered on the thorny issue of whether to include references to recent disputes in the waters, diplomats said.
"I think it's utterly irresponsible if we cannot come up with a common statement on the South China Sea," Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters.
China claims essentially all of the South China Sea, while Taiwan and ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia also have claims in the waters, causing regular diplomatic flare-ups.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on all sides to resolve the disputes "without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and certainly without the use of force".
"We look to ASEAN and China to make meaningful progress towards finalizing a code of conduct for the South China Sea that is based on international law and agreement," she said.
Clinton acknowledged the deep tensions at play, telling reporters: "Discussions are continuing and they are intense so we will see what the outcome is."
She said she believed it was "a sign of ASEAN's maturity that they are wrestling with some very hard issues here. They are not ducking them, they are walking right into them".
The Philippines has been insisting ASEAN refer to a maritime stand-off last month with China over a rocky outcrop known as the Scarborough Shoal, but Cambodia -- a Beijing ally and chair of the meeting -- has resisted.
In an unusual move, Indonesia was working "very constructively behind the scenes to try to rally consensus", the US official said.
Natalegawa admitted that it was "very, very disappointing that at this 11th hour ASEAN is not able to rally around to certain common language on the South China Sea".
He said he had seen 17 or 18 versions of a draft paragraph for the text, all of which had been dumped as members had failed to sign off on it.
"I think it's a hiccup... I think we will get over it," ASEAN secretary general Surin Pitsuwan told reporters, adding that "just that one issue" was holding things up.
A second diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: The pressure from the big country is very intense," referring to China. "It appears that Cambodia has strict marching orders from the big country."