Vientiane (dpa) – South-East Asian leaders gathered in Laos Tuesday for the annual ASEAN summit, with the issue of China’s activities in the South China Sea hanging over the meeting.
The summit, which runs from Tuesday until Thursday, is the last Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders gathering that US President Barack Obama will attend.
Leaders from the ten-country association are expected to express serious concern over Chinese land reclamation in the South China Sea, according to a draft statement to be issued at the end of the summit.
“We remain strongly concerned over recent and ongoing developments and took note of the concerns expressed by some leaders 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 draft statement said.
However, the leaders are unlikely to make any official mention of the international Permanent Court of Arbitration’s July ruling that Beijing has no legal right to claim a large part of the area.
The exclusion of any reference to the ruling is seen as a diplomatic victory for China which had previously rejected it as “null and void.”
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he would not raise the ruling during the ASEAN meetings, but noted on Monday that he would “underscore the importance of the rule of law and peaceful settlements of disputes.”
Ahead of the summit, the Philippines warned China might be preparing for fresh construction work in the South China Sea after 10 ships, including four that look like barges, were spotted near the disputed Scarborough Shoal.
“This is very worrisome because it’s ours,” Defence Secretary Lorenzana told reporters in Vientiane. “If they succeed in building an island and construct [structures] there, we can’t take it back anymore.”
Obama was expected to bring up the issue with ASEAN leaders and discuss the need to resolve the territorial disputes under international law, according to the White House.
He was also set to reassure the South-East Asian leaders of the United States’ commitment to the region during his visit to Laos, the first by an incumbent American president.
Obama said he would seek to boost ties with Laos and hope to offer more assistance to the impoverished country in dealing with unexploded ordnance left behind by a massive US aerial campaign during the Vietnam War.
“At the outset, as we’re trying to build trust, a lot of work can be done around war legacy issues,” he said before flying to Vientiane Monday. “For the Lao, that involves dealing with unexploded ordnance, which is still plaguing big chunks of the countryside.”
“Since Laos is still a relatively poor country that is developing, their capacity alone to clean that up is hampered by a lack of resources. We should help,” he added.
The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was founded in 1967 and comprises ten countries with a combined total of over 620 million people from diverse cultures and religions.
The member countries are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.