MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Leaders of 10 Asian countries are meeting this weekend to discuss topics including North Korea, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and improved economic integration of the region.
The Associated Press’ chief Manila correspondent, Jim Gomez, who has covered regional politics for more than two decades, weighs in on what to expect:
WHAT’S LIKELY TO BE THE SUMMIT’S DOMINANT ISSUE? WILL ASEAN MEMBERS MAKE PROGRESS ON IT?
Once again, South China Sea territorial disputes are hijacking attention away from the more benign topics of free trade and regional economic integration. The conflicts have dragged on for decades with no solution in sight. It’s also a battleground for the United States and China, with the smaller ASEAN nations caught in between.
China’s construction of seven islands, now feared to be armed with missiles, and last year’s arbitration ruling against China’s expansive claims are two new realities that have elevated the issue to new levels of uncertainty. The Philippines is hoping a framework for a code of conduct can be concluded this year between ASEAN and China.
The escalating standoff between the Trump administration and North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs has also brought that issue back to the top of ASEAN’s security worries. Southeast Asia is a step removed from the crisis, but its top diplomats are expressing grave concern.
There is also concern about where ASEAN lies in Trump’s priorities. Its top diplomats are flying to Washington to meet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson next week to find out over lunch.
WHAT SUBJECTS ARE ASEAN MEMBERS KEEN TO AVOID?
ASEAN is an unwieldy collective that includes dictatorships and authoritarian states. The diverse bloc has endured for a half century largely because of a bedrock policy: Member states are forbidden from meddling in each other’s affairs. So, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who turns ballistic toward critics of his war on drugs, is likely to find some peace and quiet.
That no-meddling policy, however, isn’t always sacrosanct. When Myanmar was ruled by a brutal military junta, ASEAN’s more democratic members led then by the Philippines tested the limits of that policy and criticized the junta for its dismal rights record. ASEAN is now credited with helping bring about Myanmar’s march to democracy and legitimacy.
HOW BIG A MOMENT IS THIS FOR THE HOST, PHILIPPINE PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE?
It’s a huge opportunity for unorthodox President Duterte to show that he’s capable of statesmanship and showcase his regional acceptance amid outrage from Western governments over his bloody war on drugs.
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