Southeast Asian leaders yesterday pressed their call for self-restraint in the disputed South China Sea and renewed their alarm over the US-China trade dispute, with one leader saying it might spiral out of control.
Long-raging territorial conflicts and the protracted trade dispute are high on the agenda in the final two days of meetings of ASEAN leaders.
Facing regional predicaments, such as the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar, the leaders took the stage in Bangkok and clasped their hands together in a trademark ASEAN handshake to project unity.
This year’s host, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, opened the summit with a call for regional unity and a push for the bloc to conclude a massive free-trade pact with China and five other Asia-Pacific nations to cushion any impact from the US’ trade conflicts with China.
“The winds of protectionism that are battering the multilateral system remind us that we must hang on ever stronger to one another,” Prayuth said.
The US is not included in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which Prayuth said would encompass the world’s largest free-trade region.
Officials from Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam are to be at the G20 summit later this month in Japan, where US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) are expected to meet.
“ASEAN hopes there will be discussions that lead to an easing and resolution of these problems, because they affect many countries,” Prayuth said.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Saturday told other leaders that the trade conflict “is creating uncertainty. It is taking a toll on global growth and it could hinder the ongoing processes of economic integration.”
“The US and China must both take the high road and resolve their differences before the situation spirals out of control,” Duterte said.
In their public communiques, the leaders have avoided naming the US, China or specific nations embroiled in controversial issues in a show of their conservative protocols, but the leaders could raise thorny issues in a closed-door and informal session.
Duterte has said that he would raise the territorial conflicts in the South China Sea following the June 9 ramming of an anchored Philippine boat by a larger Chinese fishing vessel in the disputed Reed Bank (Lile Bank, 禮樂灘).
In a statement outlining their regional policies, the leaders yesterday renewed their call for nations involved in the territorial spats to “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation, and pursue the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law.”
Four ASEAN states — the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei — along with Taiwan and China are locked in disputes over the strategic waterway.
ASEAN has been in talks with China to negotiate a nonaggression pact called the “code of conduct” to prevent major armed clashes in the region.
Southeast Asian diplomats have told reporters that the first of three rounds of talks on the proposed pact was expected to be completed this year.
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