Senior Southeast Asian foreign ministry officials met in the Philippines on Wednesday to try to improve maritime co-operation amid sea disputes that threaten regional stability.
Discussions during the three-day Asean Maritime Forum will focus on maritime security, sea piracy and ensuring “freedom of navigation” in the seas they share, the foreign department said in a statement.
Asean groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
“The Philippines would like to positively engage our partners to discuss cross-cutting maritime issues and explore ways and means to enhance activities aimed at bolstering maritime security and cooperation in East Asia,” said foreign department spokesman Raul Hernandez.
He said a chairman’s statement spelling out agreed cooperation efforts would be released on Thursday after the closed-door sessions.
The officials at the meeting are mostly deputy foreign ministers and senior foreign ministry officials.
The forum is to be expanded on Friday to include Asean partners Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the United States, the department said.
Japan’s delegation is led by deputy minister for foreign affairs Koji Tsuruoka, who is expected to deliver a speech on Friday.
One diplomat at the talks said the speech may touch on an ongoing dispute with China over a group of islands called Senkaku in the East China Sea, which China also claims and calls Diaoyu.
China is also embroiled in territorial disputes with Southeast Asian nations over the South China Sea.
It claims sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea, which is believed to hold vast amounts of oil and gas, is a rich fishing ground and is home to shipping lanes vital to global trade.
But the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims to parts of the sea, some of them overlapping.
The Philippines and China have been locked in a months-long diplomatic stand-off over Scarborough Shoal, an outcrop of rocks in the South China Sea, which Manila calls the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippines insists the shoal sits well within its exclusive economic zone spelt out under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The nearest major Chinese land mass is 1,200 kilometres northwest, according to Philippine navy maps.
The Chinese embassy in Manila would not release the names of its officials attending this week’s meeting.