April 29, 2017 4:08 pm JST

ASEAN summit opens with concerns over threats to peace, stability

Southeast Asian leaders pose for a photo during the 30th Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Manila on April 29. © Reuters

MANILA (Kyodo) -- Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations kicked off their summit Saturday with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte expressing concerns over threats to regional peace and stability, while also stressing the need to tackle pressing issues like drug trafficking and terrorism.

"On the political and security front, we find the traditional and non-tradition security issues test our resolve to promote peace, stability and prosperity in our region," Duterte said in his opening speech at the one-day summit in Manila, which he is chairing.

"Geopolitical and strategic developments around the globe also pose a challenge and goals, if not the security of our environment," he said, without specifically referring to heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula or ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea involving four ASEAN member states, China and Taiwan.

He called for "peaceful resolution of disputes" and respect for rule of law, saying, "In an era where there can be much of uncertainly, we must faithfully adhere to the supremacy of the law and rely on the primacy of rules as responsible members of the international community."

In the wake of North Korea's latest ballistic missile test, conducted earlier Friday in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, the ASEAN leaders are expected to express "grave concern" over that country's repeated nuclear and missile tests that have "resulted in escalation of tensions that can affect peace and stability in the entire region," according to a draft of a chairman's statement to be issued by Duterte at the end of the meeting,

Regarding the fight against illegal drugs, which has been a focus of his presidency that began in June last year, Duterte said, "We must also be resolute in realizing a drug-free ASEAN."

"The scourge of illegal drugs threatens ASEAN's gains in community building," he said, adding that "it can be destroyed before it destroys our societies."

On ASEAN'S so-called dialogue relations with countries outside the region such as the United States, which has criticized his bloody anti-drug campaign on human rights grounds, the president said, "Relations bear fruit when they are based on mutual respect and benefit."

"Dialogue relations can be made more productive, constructive, if the valued principle of noninterference of the ASEAN member states is observed," he said.

Duterte also called for advancing cooperation at the bilateral, regional and multilateral levels to "to eliminate security threats to regional growth and development" including piracy at sea, terrorism and violent extremism.

The ASEAN leaders are expected to discuss a proposed code of conduct in the South China Sea between ASEAN and China, the framework of which is currently being negotiated by officials with the hope of finalizing one this year.

Other ASEAN member states that have competing claims in the South China Sea are Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. Taiwan is also a claimant. The 10-member grouping also includes Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand.

According to the chairman's statement, the leaders will reaffirm their "shared commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security and stability in the region, as well as to the peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force."

China continues to reject a ruling issued by an international arbitration court in The Hague that rejected its sweeping claims over almost the entire South China Sea through which much international commerce passes, and where marine resources, and potentially oil and gas deposits, are abundant.

Duterte's administration has opted not to push for China's compliance with the ruling, in the hope of forging closer bilateral economic ties.

China is being criticized for reclaiming land in the South China Sea and building structures on it, including those military in nature, despite a 2002 agreement with ASEAN not to change the status quo in the area.

"We took note of the serious concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments and escalation of activities in the area, which may further raise tensions and erode trust and confidence in the region," the draft statement reads.

"We reaffirmed the importance of enhancing mutual trust and confidence, exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities, avoiding actions, such as land reclamation and militarization that may further complicate the situation," it adds.

The leaders are also expected to discuss ASEAN's development goals for 2025.

Leaders of ASEAN's dialogue partners are expected to attend a bigger summit in November in the Philippines, which is this year's ASEAN chair country.

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