Sea dispute, N. Korea, Muslim militants top ASEAN meetings

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Alarm over North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile tests, a germinal step to temper South China Sea disputes and unease over a disastrous siege by pro-Islamic State group militants will grab the spotlight in an annual gathering of Southeast Asia’s top diplomats with their Asian and Western counterparts.

The 27 nations deploying their foreign ministers for three days of summitry and handshake photo-ops in Manila starting Saturday include the main protagonists in long-tormenting conflicts led by the United States, Russia, China, Japan and South and North Korea.

The Philippines plays host as this year’s chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. It’s an unwieldy 10-nation collective of democracies, monarchies and authoritarian regimes founded half a century ago in the Cold-War era, which prides itself for being a bulwark of diplomacy in a region scarred by a history of wars and interminable conflicts.

A look at the main issues expected to dominate the meetings:

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SOUTH CHINA SEA

Chinese and ASEAN foreign ministers will endorse a two-page framework of a long-sought code of conduct in the disputed South China Sea when they meet on Saturday. The Philippines calls the development a major diplomatic progress in efforts to ease a potential flashpoint.

Critics say the agreed outline of key principles is lopsidedly in China’s favor and suspect that Beijing may have consented to it to divert protests as it tries to complete land reclamations and fortify its man-made islands with a missile defense system.

While the framework carries hope for a diplomatic approach to the disputes, it noticeably failed to mention China’s construction of new islands and an arbitration ruling last year that invalidated the historic basis of Beijing’s claim to virtually the entire sea, a strategic waterway for commerce and defense. China has dismissed the arbitration ruling, which was put forward by the Philippines, as a sham.

Backed by its treaty ally the United States, the Philippines was the most vocal critic of China’s assertive actions in the contested region until President Rodrigo Duterte rose to power last year. He swiftly moved to rekindle ties with Beijing in the hope of boosting trade and securing infrastructure funding while indefinitely sidelining efforts to secure Chinese compliance with the…

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