BORACAY ISLAND, Philippines -- The first major meeting of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ministers this year will provide a window on the regional reaction to shifts expected in U.S. foreign policy following President Donald Trump's entry into office in January.
With the Philippines in the rotating ASEAN chair this year, the annual foreign ministers' retreat takes place on Tuesday at a beach resort on Boracay, an island in the central Philippines.
Trump's avowed America-first policy comes on the heels of President Barack Obama's pivot to Asia in his second term. Some analysts are predicting a reduced U.S. presence in the region, leaving China a stronger hand on key issues, including territorial disputes in the South China Sea and regional trade.
"They will be taking stock of different challenges, including political challenges that ASEAN is facing," Charles Jose, the Philippine foreign affairs spokesperson told reporters on Sunday. "These include the new leaders in other countries with their own style of governance and leadership."
Teuku Rezasyah, an international relations observer at Indonesia's Padjajaran University, said Trump's election has caught ASEAN off guard, particularly in terms of regional security.
"On the South China Sea issue, Trump's policy can be detrimental to ASEAN collectively," he said, arguing that more attention should be paid to boosting defense of countries individually. "ASEAN should not be a pawn in the game -- be it by China or the US."
Jose said ASEAN favors a "framework" based on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, which China has laid claim to almost entirely. The territorial dispute principally involves the Philippines. Within ASEAN, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam also have claims, as does Taiwan outside the grouping.
The framework, intended as a precursor to a legally binding agreement of some kind, will be the basis for managing tensions in the disputed waters.
Improved regional economic integration has meanwhile progressed slowly since the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community at the end of 2015.
Trump's scuttling of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a U.S.-led trade pact, particularly affects Brunei, Singapore, and Vietnam, which were already on board, and fresh bilateral talks with the U.S. will be needed.
Jose said ministers will discuss the China-backed Regional Comprehensive and Economic Partnership (RCEP) and other initiatives. The Philippines is already a party to RCEP, and Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said in December that Manila will use the ASEAN chair to promote the 16-country pact, which does not include the U.S.
The Philippines adopted a more conciliatory approach toward China after President Rodrigo Duterte took office at the end of June.
The Indonesian foreign ministry said earlier that Rohingyas, terrorism, security and economic cooperation would be among the topics it wants discussed at the meeting.