Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed at their annual summit Sunday not to let some ASEAN members’ maritime disputes with China obstruct regional integration efforts, while they sought early talks with China on a regional code of conduct aimed at reducing conflicts in the South China Sea.
ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan told reporters the regional bloc is “very much desirous” to begin formal talks with China on crafting a legally binding regional code of conduct in the South China Sea.
Surin said ASEAN has tasked Thailand as country coordinator “to intensify discussions with our Chinese colleagues.”
“They (ASEAN) would like to see the commencement of the discussion as soon as possible because this is an issue of interest concern and worry of the international community that we should move forward and it’s an issue between ASEAN and China to resolve together for our own credibility and for the confidence in the region,” Surin said.
The territorial disputes in the South China Sea have periodically erupted into altercations, with standoffs between vessels of rival claimants, ship collisions and even clashes, which have heightened tensions in East Asia.
On the issue of Myanmar, ASEAN leaders expressed support for its government’s ongoing reform and democratization efforts, while offering support in addressing the violence between Buddhists and Muslims of different ethnicities that erupted recently in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Surin said it has been agreed that ASEAN must play a “neutral fulcrum” in any rivalry that could emerge in the region because otherwise it could damage the grouping’s efforts to establish a community by 2015.
“Knowing that the region is increasingly being interested and a lot of forces, a lot of players are converging on the region, therefore that principle of neutrality is extremely important. ASEAN must play a balancing act effectively,” he added.
The ASEAN leaders also discussed how to achieve their goal of realizing economic, political and social integration by the end of 2015, thereby transforming ASEAN from a mere “association” of 10 nations into a “community.”
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose country chairs the 10-member grouping this year, opened the meeting with a call “to find appropriate solutions to further accelerate the pace of ASEAN Community building,” saying that should be ASEAN’s “top priority.”
He was referring to ASEAN’s plan to build a three-pillar community comprising an ASEAN Economic Community with a combined market of 600 million consumers, an ASEAN Political-Security Community and an ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community.
“We have only slightly more than two years ahead to realize the ASEAN Community by 2015, while daunting tasks remain to be addressed,” Hun Sen said, citing such key areas as tariff and nontariff barriers, investment liberalization, connectivity and transportation, institutional building and regulatory reforms.
Noting that the development gap among ASEAN members remains significant, he said, “This requires us to redouble our efforts to promote faster growth and improve equitable distribution of the fruits of growth among the member countries.”
The leaders made it clear for the first time that the deadline for economic integration is the last day of the 2015, not the first day of that year.
Some ASEAN leaders also stressed the need to keep the bloc’s unity in combating with many challenges that include the fragile economic recovery in developed countries, the prolonged debt crisis in Europe and the slowdown of growth in Asia.
The ASEAN leaders earlier adopted a declaration on promotion and protection of human rights in the region, which has come under criticism from the United States, a U.N. rights body and international human rights advocacy groups which say it would undermine universal standards.
The declaration includes provisions on civil and political rights, economic rights, social and cultural rights, the right to development, rights of women, children and other vulnerable groups and cooperation in the promotion and protection of human rights.
They also announced the setting up of a center in Cambodia to help rid the region of landmines left behind from past conflicts.
Surin said the leaders also expressed “deep” concerns over escalation of armed conflicts and civilian casualties in Syria and Gaza Strip and called for restraint and ceasefire.