BANGKOK -- Southeast Asian leaders gathered Saturday for a weekend summit in Thailand, where they planned to commit to the conclusion of a long-delayed regional trade pact.
China's sinking of a Philippine boat, which endangered 22 Filipino fishermen, was expected to also put the South China Sea's territorial conflicts under the spotlight in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meetings. The two-day summit got underway Saturday in the Thai capital, Bangkok, where the association was founded in 1967 in the Cold War era.
Another key issue is the planned repatriation of more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees who have fled to Bangladesh during a military crackdown in Buddhist-majority Burma. The crisis, which began in August 2017, has tested the association.
Critics have hit the regional bloc for failing to address the abuses in Burma's Rakhine state that the United Nations has called ethnic cleansing.
A confidential draft of a post-summit communique, which was expected to be issued by the host, Thailand's junta leader and newly proclaimed Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, would commit the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to conclude the negotiations for the trade pact within the year.
The draft statement urging economic ministers "to exert relentless efforts to reach this target" was seen by The Associated Press.
"We remained concerned over the unabating tide of protectionism and anti-globalization sentiments that continue to plague the global economy and put multilateralism under threat," the draft statement said.
Many of the leaders fear that the rise of protectionism could have a devastating effect on the regional and global economies.
Trade tensions between the U.S. and China over Beijing's technology policies and other market-access issues have added to strains within the region, especially since President Donald Trump took office in early 2017 and declared his "America first" preference for bilateral trade deals and his distrust of international institutions.
The U.S. and China have imposed tariffs on billions of dollars of each other's products in a standoff that has shown no sign of abating.
Association member states and six other Asia-Pacific countries have been negotiating the trade pact, called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The accord includes giants such as China and India but not the U.S. It is expected to encompass nearly half of the world's population and 40% of world trade.
Although talks have gradually progressed, negotiators failed to finalize the accord last year because of lingering differences. India balked at widening its markets to imports from rival China, for example, according to participants.
In the region, the South China Sea rifts have been a long-standing security concern. But the June 9 ramming of an anchored Philippine boat by a larger Chinese fishing vessel in the Reed Bank sparked an outcry and condemnations in the Philippines, after the Chinese crew sailed away while the fishing boat sank at night. The Filipino crew was rescued by a Vietnamese vessel.
But Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has nurtured close ties with China, has backed Beijing's initial assertion that the collision was accidental and mocked calls for him to immediately take drastic actions.
Amid the criticism, Duterte said late Friday before flying to Thailand that he would "talk lengthily" about the disputes in the Bangkok meetings and would question China's vast territorial claims that span deep into the coastal waters of rival claimants.
"Is it correct for China to declare ownership of an ocean?" Duterte asked in a speech.
Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines are involved in the long-unresolved conflicts, which escalated in recent years after China transformed seven disputed reefs into missile-protected islands that can serve as forward military outposts.
In the draft statement, leaders are expected to stress the importance of not militarizing the disputed region and urge self-restraint in carrying out activities "that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea."
A Section on 06/23/2019
Print Headline: Trade tops agenda for Asian bloc