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ASEAN leaders to press concern over SCS militarization, seek maritime exercise with US –draft statement

Southeast Asian leaders will press their concern on land reclamations in the disputed South China Sea, call for an end to militarization in the vast region, and highlight an agreement to hold a maritime exercise with the United States next year after undertaking drills with China, according to a draft statement they will issue after a summit in Singapore this week.

The draft obtained by GMA News Online on Tuesday underscores the deep concern of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over the long-seething territorial disputes and the 10-member regional bloc's efforts to balance its relations with China and the US. The sea feud and the rivalry between Beijing and Washington have long been a challenge to ASEAN unity.

The language of the draft statement, however, may still change. Wordings and paragraphs are still subject to fine-tuning before the final statement is released by the leaders.

Currently led by Singapore, this week’s meetings will gather ASEAN members and its dialogue partners, such as leaders from the United States, China, Japan, and Russia, among others, providing them the opportunity to discuss pressing regional concerns, such as the denuclearization in North Korea and Rohingya refugee crisis.

US President Donald Trump is skipping the summit, but will be represented by Vice President Mike Pence.

While the leaders praised the "continued improving cooperation between ASEAN and China" in the South China Sea, the leaders will take note of "some concerns on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region."

They did not name China, which has actively engaged in massive land reclamation and admitted to recently installing weather monitoring stations in its newly-built artificial islands off the resource-rich waters contested by other claimants, such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

"We reaffirmed the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation, and pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS," the draft document said.

China has been heavily criticized for turning several formerly submerged reefs into artificial islands, equipped with multi-level buildings and runways, and for its reported installation of missile defense systems.

Beijing maintains its right to build on the features, saying it has indisputable sovereignty and ownership over nearly the entire South China Sea.

"We emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states, including those mentioned in the DOC that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea," the draft statement said.

UNCLOS stands for United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, while DOC or Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea is a non-binding non-aggression pact between the ASEAN and China.

ASEAN leaders, according to the draft, will also reaffirm "the importance of freedom of navigation in and over-flight over the South China Sea."

Recognizing the benefits of having the South China Sea "as a sea of peace, stability and prosperity," leaders will call for the “full and effective implementation" of the 2002 DOC "in its entirety."

Leaders will also welcome the "continued improving cooperation between ASEAN and China" and say that they were "encouraged by the progress of the substantive negotiations towards the early conclusion of an effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) on a mutually-agreed timeline."

ASEAN groups the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.

As a confidence-building measure, ASEAN and China held its first-ever maritime drills in Zhanjiang in China’s Guangdong province last October.

Leaders are expected to announce in their statement a similar exercise with the US next year, which may be seen as a counter-balance to China’s growing clout in the region and presence in the South China Sea.

"We took note of the successful ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise in 2018 and the agreement to conduct an ASEAN-United States Maritime Exercise in 2019," the draft document said.

Leaders will also praise the rapprochement between South Korea and North Korea, as well as the June 12 summit of President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore.

"We urged all concerned parties to continue working towards the realization of lasting peace and stability on a denuclearized Korean Peninsula," the draft said as it welcomed North Korea's "stated commitment to complete denuclearization and its pledge to refrain from further nuclear and missile tests during this period."

The plight of minority Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar's Rakhine state is also expected to be raised in the meetings.

Amid the killings and violence blamed on Myanmar’s security forces, ASEAN has kept quiet and refused to rebuke Myanmar, a member of the 10-nation grouping.

ASEAN, which has a policy of non-interference, has long been criticized and dismissed as an irrelevant bloc of nations for looking the other way when a member state commits widespread human rights abuses.

Leaders, the draft said, will acknowledge that the issue is “a matter of concern,” and will express support for the “expeditious commencement of the voluntary return of displaced persons to Myanmar in a safe, secure and dignified way without undue delay.”

They will also call for "a comprehensive and durable solution to address the root causes of the conflict and to create a conducive environment so that the affected communities can rebuild their lives." —KBK, GMA News