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ASEAN leaders call for restraint amid sea row, US-China rift

June 23, 2019
Associated Press

BANGKOK (AP) — Southeast Asian leaders pressed their call for self-restraint in the disputed South China Sea Sunday after a new incident and renewed their alarm over the U.S.-China trade war, with one warning it may spiral out of control.

The long-raging territorial conflicts and the protracted dispute between the two global economic powerhouses are high on the agenda in the final of two days of meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders. It's an annual summit steeped in diplomacy, protocol and cultural color in the Thai capital of Bangkok.

Facing regional predicaments such as the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar, the leaders took the stage and clasped their hands together in a trademark ASEAN handshake to project unity.

Founded in 1967 in Bangkok in the Cold War era, the diverse 10-nation bloc lumps together an absolute monarchy and constitutional monarchies, along with socialist republics and fledgling democracies.

This year's host, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, opened the summit with a call for regional unity and a push for the 10-nation ASEAN bloc to conclude a massive free trade pact with China and five other Asia-Pacific nations to cushion any impact from America's 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 U.S., which has pursued bilateral deals over multination trade accords under President Donald Trump, is not included in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, which Prayuth said would encompass the world's largest free-trade region.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte told other leaders on Saturday that the trade conflict between Washington and Beijing "is creating uncertainty. It is taking a toll on global growth and it could hinder the ongoing processes of economic integration."

"The U.S. and China must both take the high road and resolve their differences before the situation spirals out of control," the usually blunt Duterte said.

In their public communiques, the leaders have avoided naming the U.S. and China or specific nations embroiled in controversial issues in a show of their conservative protocols. The leaders, however, could raise thorny issues in a closed-door and informal session.

Duterte has said 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. The incident sparked an outcry and condemnations in the Philippines after the Chinese crew sailed away while the fishing boat sank at night. Its Filipino crew was rescued by a Vietnamese vessel.

Known for his close ties with China, Duterte has backed Beijing's initial assertion that the collision was accidental. He mocked calls for him to immediately take drastic actions and agreed to a joint investigation of the Reed Bank incident with China, which critics have opposed.

In a statement outlining their regional policies, the leaders on Sunday renewed their call for countries 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 — are among six governments locked in the disputes over the strategic waterway aside from China and Taiwan. The ASEAN has been in talks with China to negotiate a nonaggression pact called the "code of conduct" to prevent major armed clashes in the offshore region, which has long been regarded as an Asian flashpoint.

Southeast Asian diplomats have told The Associated Press that the first of three rounds of talks on the proposed pact was expected to be completed this year. The more difficult aspects, including whether the pact should be legally binding and cover the entire disputed region, have been relegated to the final rounds so as not to stall the talks early on.

While China has praised the negotiations as a show of Asian nations' ability to manage their conflicts peacefully, critics doubt if such a code of behavior can make a difference given Beijing's increasingly aggressive assertion of its claims in the strategic waters.

They cite China's construction of islands on seven disputed reefs in recent years despite it being a party to a 2002 non-binding regional agreement discouraging such assertive actions.

China initially claimed some of the islands would serve as storm shelters for fishermen but Beijing instead installed defensive missile systems there while its naval forces shoo away and warn U.S. and other ships and aircraft that stray near.


Associated Press journalists Jerry Harmer, Tassanee Vejpongsa and Gemunu Amarasinghe contributed to this report.



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