The unusually strong comments from a key claimant to the contested waters, comes as diplomats meet in Laos for the first summit since a UN-backed tribunal debunked Beijing's legal claim to vast stretches of the strategically vital sea.

After talks stuttered on Sunday, Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a late night statement warning that the South China Sea had become "a test case for the unity and the central role of Asean".

"Many ministers stressed that in this context, Asean should promote solidarity, unity and a central role," the statement added.

Diplomats met for a new round of crunch talks called for by Laos on Monday morning.

As they came to a close, Indonesia's foreign minister Retno Marsudi expressed optimism that a statement would be agreed, though diplomats previously told AFP it would likely be "watered down".

Staunch Beijing ally Cambodia has been accused of scuppering efforts by the bloc to issue a joint statement calling on Beijing to adhere to the UN tribunal's decision.

Four Asean members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have competing claims with Beijing over parts of the South China Sea.

Most members of the bloc want to keep pressure on China over its campaign of island building in the strategic waters.

But Asean operates on a tradition of consensus diplomacy, meaning a single nation can have an effective veto power if it disagrees with the others.

China has been accused of teasing poorer members like Laos and Cambodia into fracturing regional unity with promises of aid and trade.

Critics have long derided Asean for lacking real diplomatic clout.

A failure to respond to the tribunal ruling or the region's key security issue will do little to counter those claims.

The ongoing impasse in Vientiane has led to fears of a repeat of a 2012 summit in Cambodia where the bloc failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in its history because of disagreements over the South China Sea.

Chinese pressure was blamed last month for a startling show of discord by the bloc, when countries swiftly disowned a joint statement released by Malaysia after an Asean-China meeting.

That statement had expressed alarm over Beijing's activities in the South China Sea. Cambodia and Laos were later fingered as being behind moves to block the joint statement.

Agence France Presse - July 25, 2016

ASEAN seeks common stance on East Vietnam Sea ruling in Laos ministerial meeting

Recent developments in the East Vietnam Sea are expected to be on the table as foreign ministers of ten Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, kicked off the 49th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) in Vientiane, Laos, on Saturday.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, is a ten-member politico-economic organization whose members include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Their foreign ministers are gathering in the Lao capital for the 49th edition of the annual AMM, where diplomatic issues concerning its member states will be discussed.

Closing on Tuesday next week, the meeting in Vientiane is the first AMM to be held after a July 12 ruling issued by an arbitral tribunal in The Hague over disputes in the East Vietnam Sea, which dismissed China’s territorial claims to vast swathes of the waterway.

Differing views

According to sources of Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper, some ASEAN countries are still hoping for a joint statement on the tribunal’s ruling following the 49th AMM, although the group had earlier failed to issue one.

Karim Kaslan, a Malaysia-based ASEAN expert, asserted that the grouping would seek a safe solution to avoid criticism among its members.

Kaslan found the lack of a common voice among the member states on issues in the East Vietnam Sea, including the Hague ruling, a regrettable reality.

The expert attributed that situation to differences among ASEAN members, when such countries as Cambodia supports China’s stance on East Vietnam Sea disputes, whereas those like the Philippines and Vietnam do not.

Kasplan said that there is little chance for this AMM to break the political stalemate, as China, which has certain influences on Laos as its major economic partner, does not want the issue to be raised.

If there should be a joint statement issued by the participating countries, he said, it would not be binding and would most likely avoid causing disunity among the parties.

ASEAN looks to strengthen unity

A two-day ASEAN Senior Officials’ Meeting (SOM) was held on Thursday and Friday to lay out the agenda for the ministerial meeting.

Deputy Foreign Minister Le Hoai Trung, head of Vietnam’s SOM delegation, said the parties had during the meeting re-evaluated the establishment of a regional political-security community and discussed cooperation with non-member countries, the operation of different mechanisms within ASEAN, as well as other international and regional situations.

The importance of strengthening unity among ASEAN members and enhancing the group’s central role in the region in the context of complicated international and regional developments were stressed at the SOM meeting, according to the deputy minister.

A number of issues such as the 2015 ASEAN vision, the 2030 United Nations agenda on sustainable development, and updates to the ASEAN Charter as suggested by the Philippines were also raised during the gathering.

Trung disclosed that the parties also voiced concerns over East Vietnam Sea complications at the meeting.

Challenge for Laos, ASEAN

Dr. Le Hong Hiep, who works at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said while a number of ASEAN countries welcomed the Hague ruling and would work towards releasing a joint statement within the bloc on the issue, China would do its best to nullify the effort by wielding influence on some of the group’s members.

Drawing experience from the case of Cambodia, Hiep said, Laos may look for a more compromising stance and try not to turn the meeting into another failure despite immense political pressure from China as one of its crucial economic partners.

Hiep thus concluded that the meeting would be another major challenge for Laos and ASEAN, predicting that a joint statement, if any, would avoid referring directly to the ruling as well as the situation in the East Vietnam Sea.

The ASEAN countries may issue separate statements to affirm their stance on the issue instead, Hiep said.

Tuoi Tre News - July 23, 2016

ASEAN breaks deadlock on South China Sea, Beijing thanks Cambodia for support

Southeast Asian nations overcame days of deadlock on Monday when the Philippines dropped a request for their joint statement to mention a landmark legal ruling on the South China Sea, officials said, after objections from Cambodia.

Beijing publicly thanked Cambodia for supporting its stance on maritime disputes, a position which threw the regional block's weekend meeting in the Laos capital of Vientiane into disarray.

Competing claims with China in the vita shipping are among the most contentious issues for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with its 10 members pulled between their desire to assert their sovereignty while finding common ground and fostering political and commercial ties with Beijing.

China claims most of the sea, but ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei all have rival claims. In a ruling by the U.N.-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration on July 12, the Philippines won an emphatic legal victory over China on the dispute.

The Philippines and Vietnam both wanted the ruling, which denied China's sweeping claims in the strategic seaway that channels more than $5 trillion in global trade each year, and a call to respect international maritime law to feature in the communique.

Calling for bilateral discussions, Cambodia opposed the wording on the ruling, diplomats said.

Manila agreed to drop the reference to the ruling in the communique, one ASEAN diplomat said on Monday, in an effort to prevent the disagreement leading to the group failing to issue a statement.

The communique referred instead to the need to find peaceful resolutions to disputes in the South China Sea in accordance with international law, including the United Nations' law of the sea, to which the court ruling referred.

"We remain seriously concerned about recent and ongoing developments and took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region," the ASEAN communique said.

It was important to avoid militarization of the region, and for freedom of navigation to be maintained, ASEAN said.

Beijing says the court ruling has no bearing on its rights in the sea, and described the case as a farce.

Cambodia's position was the right one and would safeguard unity of ASEAN and cooperation with China, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Cambodia's Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon, according to a statement posted on China's Foreign Ministry website early on Monday.

"China greatly approves of Cambodia and other ASEAN countries taking charge of impartiality and safeguarding fairness," Wang said.

China frequently blames the United States for raising tensions in the region and has warned regional rival Japan to steer clear of the dispute.

"We will not permit any outside force to seek to exploit and hype up the so-called South China Sea arbitration case and bring chaos to this region," Wang said.

Major powers arrive

The United States, allied with the Philippines and cultivating closer relations with Vietnam, has called on China to respect the court's ruling.

It has criticized China's building of artificial islands and facilities in the sea and has sailed warships close to the disputed territory to assert freedom of navigation rights.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Laos' capital on Monday. He is expected to discuss maritime issues in a meeting with Wang, as well as in meetings with ASEAN members.

Both are in town for the ASEAN regional forum and East Asia summits, which bring ASEAN diplomats together with the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and several other countries.

Kerry will urge ASEAN nations to explore diplomatic ways to ease tension over Asia's biggest potential military flashpoint, a senior U.S. official said ahead of his trip.

Barack Obama is set to become the first U.S. president to visit Laos, attending an annual summit in September.

Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is also in Laos, making her debut at ASEAN meetings as the foreign minister for Myanmar.

By Michael Martina & Manuel Mogato - Reuters - July 25, 2016