At the gathering in Manila, Association of Southeast Asian Nations members avoided using any expressions that might displease Beijing in their statement regarding the territorial disputes.
But Beijing is facing a more vocal rival claimant in Hanoi, and ties are strained with Singapore, which is edging closer to the United States and will take over as chair of Asean next year.
And in a move that could challenge Beijing’s interests in the world’s busiest and most strategic shipping lanes, defense ministers from the US and Vietnam have pledged to deepen military ties for their common interests in the South China Sea.
US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and his Vietnamese counterpart Ngo Xuan Lich agreed to allow a US aircraft carrier to visit Vietnam next year – for the first time since the Vietnam war ended in 1975. The agreement also includes expanded cooperation between their two navies and intelligence sharing.