Four big issues to watch out for at the Asean summit

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 November, 2017, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 November, 2017, 5:32pm

Leaders of over 20 countries are gathering at an annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the Philippines on Monday.

Apart from the 10 members of Asean, leaders from the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand and Canada are also to due to attend the gathering.

Here are four things to watch out for during the summit:

1. South China Sea

Five Asean nations, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia have competing claims to waters in the South China Sea, along with China.

The rival claims are a constant source of friction and the issue is likely to be high on the agenda at the summit.

Asean is due to announce the start of negotiations with China on a code of conduct in the South China Sea, according to a statement from the Philippines government,

It took nearly 15 years for China and the regional bloc to reach a framework for the code of conduct, which aims to prevent clashes and armed conflict in the busy and resource-rich waterway.

US President Donald Trump said in Vietnam before his arrival in the Philippines that he was willing to mediate or arbitrate in South China Sea disputes.

‘Better left untouched’: Philippines and Vietnam wary of Trump offer to mediate South China Sea disputes

However, the Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary, Alan Peter Cayetano, said the focus at Asean was on agreeing to the code of conduct.

“The issues are so complex and intersecting that what President Duterte wanted to do is to lower the temperature, get people talking, stop people from claiming more features and occupying and building,” Cayetano told reporters on the sidelines of the summit on Sunday.

The Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who is departing from his predecessors’ policy by seeking closer ties with Beijing, has said the South China Sea dispute was “better left untouched”.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who is attending the summit, said in an article published by two leading newspapers in the Philippines that China wants to solve the dispute through negotiations.

2. Indo-Pacific vs Asia-Pacific

Trump’s decision to extend his trip to Asia to attend the summit is seen by analysts as a sign of the importance the US places on the region.

While Trump and other White House officials have recently replaced the term Asia-Pacific with “Indo-Pacific”, the concept still lacks details and Trump is expected to unveil additional information about his Asia strategy.

It’s no longer Asia-Pacific, Donald Trump says. US now calls it ‘Indo-Pacific’

Trump will meet India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday afternoon after talks with the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the Philippiness’ Duterte.

India and Australia are two of the United States’ key allies in the region.

3. Rohingya crisis

Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis is also expected to be among the top concerns as the country’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi – whose perceived silence on the issue has drawn criticism worldwide – is speaking at the summit.

Suu Kyi has faced criticism over her alleged failure to address allegations of ethnic cleansing against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims.

More than half a million Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh following recent violence

Myanmar has said “very explicitly” that it need helps from Asean, Cayetano said, adding that any aid would mostly be focused on humanitarian help instead of sending peacemaking forces.

4. Trade

The Asean summit comes after an Apec gathering in Vietnam where leaders of the remaining 11 countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreed to push ahead with the trade deal despite the United States’ withdrawal earlier this year.

Duterte pushes China-backed trade pact on Asean’s 50th anniversary

This will be the first time leaders of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a trade pact that cover all 10 members of Asean and its six free trade area partners including China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand are set to meet – although no deals are expected to be signed during the summit. The US, notably, is not involved in the trade pact.