ASEAN foreign ministers adopted a statement Saturday expressing veiled resentment over China's building of artificial islands and fortifying of its garrison in the South China Sea, without specifically naming the country.
"The ministers emphasized the importance of nonmilitarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities" in the disputed waters, Lao Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith said at the close of the one-day ministerial retreat in the Laotian capital.
Laos, this year's chair of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, announced the negotiated press statement.
The foreign ministers noted in the statement that they "remained seriously concerned over the recent and ongoing developments" in the South China Sea, where up to 50 percent of the world's oil tanker shipments and over half the world's merchant tonnage pass through.
In an apparent allusion to China's activities in the waters, they said such moves have "eroded trust and confidence" and "increased tensions" in the region.
The Philippines and Vietnam, both claimants to the disputed sea, were among those who voiced concern over China's land reclamations and "escalation of activities" which could undermine peace, security and stability in the region, some ministers said.
Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh told reporters that they discussed China's latest move to position surface-to-air missiles on disputed territory in the Paracel Islands chain.
"We expressed our concern not only over the land reclamation but also the deployment of the military equipment on Woody Island, including the missiles and the aircraft and all the things that threaten peace and security in the region," he said.
He also said that during the retreat the ASEAN ministers "placed emphasis on centrality and unity" of the regional grouping. "We speak in one voice," he said.
The press statement said the foreign ministers "reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, security, stability, and freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea."
They also called for avoiding "actions that may further complicate the situation" and pursuing "peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law."
The ministers reiterated their call on claimants to help in resolving the dispute peacefully and to have "full respect for the legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force."
Like in past meetings, the ministers again stressed the need to speed up the forging of a binding code aimed at reducing the risk of conflict in the disputed sea that ASEAN and China have been trying to hammer out since efforts to reopen talks began in 2012.
Competing claims to the South China Sea have for decades been a source of tension in the region.
ASEAN has been criticized for failing to foster cohesiveness and unity especially in dealing with the overlapping territorial and maritime disputes involving China, Taiwan and four ASEAN members -- Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Apart from maritime security issues, the ASEAN ministers also discussed matters including emerging nontraditional security challenges such as terrorism, cyber security, natural disasters, climate change, irregular migration and trafficking of persons.
They also talked about the impact of North Korea's latest nuclear test conducted in January on peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.
The ministers reiterated ASEAN's "full support for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner" and called on all parties concerned "to exert more efforts to maintain peace and security" in that region.
They sought the creation of "an environment conducive to an early resumption of the six-party talks to help pave the way for maintaining and strengthening peace, security and stability in the Korean Peninsula."
The six-party talks, involving North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States and which is aimed at ending Pyongyang's nuclear program have been stalled since late 2008.
On the recent terror attack in Jakarta, the ministers reaffirmed "ASEAN's commitment to working with the international community to further intensify its cooperation to combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations."
ASEAN also includes Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand and Singapore.