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ASEAN Summit Again Focuses on South China Sea

ASEAN Summit Again Focuses on South China Sea
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There are indications the ASEAN leaders’ summit Wednesday will make progress on a long-running and contentious territorial dispute: establishing a code of conduct for the South China Sea.

At its regional security forum three months ago, the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) called for “the early conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.”

While ASEAN leaders, meeting this week in Myanmar’s capital, might not make a full breakthrough, there is now a commitment “from all the stakeholders to speed up the process,” according to the spokesman for the host’s president.

“Our expectation is after this summit, all the stakeholders can agree on the process of how to implement a code of conduct as soon as possible,” Information Minister Ye Htut told VOA on Monday.

Maritime standoffs

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ASEAN states are increasingly concerned about maritime standoffs involving Chinese vessels, part of what U.S. officials have called Beijing's “escalatory patterns of behavior” in the disputed waters.

Vietnam and the Philippines are the ASEAN countries raising the most concern. That is something ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh, himself a veteran Vietnamese diplomat, acknowledged Tuesday in a VOA interview.

“We have seen a widening gap between the political commitments and the actual actions - I mean the real situation at sea. And that is the challenge we have to overcome,” said Minh.

An agreement on the code of conduct could prove more difficult when Malaysia - viewed as being in the pro-China camp - takes over the ASEAN rotating chair next year.

ASEAN Economic Community

On that and other complex issue confronting the organization, such as next year’s launch of the ASEAN Economic Community, progress is going to be difficult without “a strong committed collective leadership, contends Surin Pitsuwan, who preceded Minh as ASEAN secretary-general.

“The speed of ASEAN is as fast as the slowest member because everything has to be by consensus,” said Surin, a former foreign minister of Thailand.

The 25th ASEAN Summit takes place Wednesday with the 9th East Asia Summit the following day.

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi and Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo will be participating in the summit for the first time.

Among the global leaders set to attend are U.S. President Barack Obama and China’s Prime Minister Li Keqiang.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is also expected to participate.