The communique was released 12 hours after the summit ended, dropping references to “land reclamation and militarisation” used in a draft and after the 2016 conferences.
It avoided references to China’s building and arming of its artificial islands.
It points to the approach taken by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (pictured), who is eager to foster stronger ties with Beijing.
Three unnamed Philippine government sources reportedly told AP that the changes came at the request of Chinese diplomats in Manila.
The Chinese embassy in Manila was unavailable for comment.
By contrast, under former president Benigno Aquino, in 2013 Manila challenged China by lodging a case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which came down heavily against Beijing’s expansionism last July.
“Our government, in its desire to fully and quickly accommodate our aggressive northern neighbour may have left itself negotiating a perilous road with little or no room to rely on brake power and a chance to shift gears if necessary,” said the Philippine foreign secretary under Aquino, Albert del Rosario.
Asean’s 25-page document mentioned “improving cooperation between Asean and China”, while references to “tensions” or “escalation of activities” in earlier drafts and in last year’s communique were removed.
A foreign diplomat based in Manila told AP that the Philippines circulated a stronger draft statement to other members, which was backed by countries like Vietnam.
Other governments made suggestions but Duterte, who holds the rotating Asean chairman this year, was allowed to decide how to shape the language of the “chairman’s statement”, said the unnamed diplomat.
After lobbying from Duterte, Beijing agreed to let Filipinos return to the rich fishing territory of the Scarborough Shoal following a four-year blockade.
On Thursday Duterte told the conference it was pointless discussing the South China Sea, because no one dared to pressure the Chinese on the issue.
Beijing’s allies Cambodia and Laos have long been unwilling to upset their largest trading partner and most important financial benefactor by joining a united stance on the South China Sea.
As Duterte weakens military links with the former colonial masters in Washington, three Chinese navy vessels on Sunday made a rare visit to the Philippines. Duterte, 72, will inspect a guided-missile destroyer in Davao, where he was mayor for two decades, tomorrow (Monday).
Picture credit: Wikimedia