Southeast Asia nations, China bring rift to ASEAN summit

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — New differences could undercut attempts by Southeast Asian countries and China to forge a pact aimed at preventing territorial conflicts from erupting into violence, diplomats said Tuesday at the start of a regional meeting.

The disputes in the South China Sea and North Korea’s planned rocket launch this month are top security worries expected to feature prominently at a two-day summit of Southeast Asian leaders in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

Myanmar, meanwhile, was basking in praise from colleagues for its recent democratic reforms. It was a marked reversal for the country, condemned for years for massive human rights violations, from its previous black sheep image at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ annual gathering.

Myanmar President Thein Sein briefed fellow leaders on Sunday’s historic by-elections, which saw pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party sweep to victory, ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said.

Thein Sein said he hoped the encouraging way the polls were held “will contribute to a higher confidence ... and will contribute to Myanmar’s own standing within ASEAN and in the international community,” Surin told the Associated Press in an interview.

Cambodia, the 10-nation ASEAN’s steward this year, has wanted to focus on nonpolitically volatile issues like the goal of transforming Southeast Asia from a disparate cluster of fledgeling democracies, socialist states and monarchies into a European Union-like bloc that could compete in a bustling region dominated by rising giants such as China and India.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen outlined the financial problems roiling the world, including skyrocketing oil prices, he said could hurt the region if it did not unify. He did not touch on controversial security issues.

“ASEAN is facing challenges that need to be addressed in order to realize its objective of ‘one community, one destiny,’” Hun Sen said in a speech, mentioning this year’s summit theme.

Ahead of the leaders’ summit, foreign ministers and senior diplomats discussed a proposal to turn a nonbinding 2002 political declaration into a legally binding “code of conduct” to discourage aggression and prevent armed clashes among China and five other claimants — including ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — in contested South China Sea areas, officials said. Taiwan also makes claims to the South China Sea.

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