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International Relations

ASEAN to air fears over China's reclamation in South China Sea

Former chair, Manila, sidestepped those concerns last year

Uninhabited island in the Spratlys in the disputed South China Sea.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Southeast Asian leaders will voice concerns over China's large-scale reclamation in the disputed South China Sea during their two-day meeting here, according to an initial draft of the summit statement, bringing to the fore an issue that was avoided last year.

"We discussed the matters relating to the South China Sea and took note of the concerns expressed by some leaders 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," the draft read.

Leaders of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations will meet on Friday and Saturday in Singapore, this year's chair. They are to tackle wide-ranging issues such as trade, terrorism and extremism, North Korea, among other political and security issues.

ASEAN member states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam as well as China have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, a strategic waterway along which $3 trillion to $5 trillion worth of trade passes annually.

China has created seven artificial islands to bolster its claims of nearly the entire area. It also equipped them with runways, radar and communication facilities, and other military outposts.

The draft statement could still change with consultation and if China's allies in the bloc, such as Cambodia, oppose the document's wording. The current wording of the statement is likely to anger Beijing, which has previously insisted that the maritime dispute has no place in a multilateral summit like ASEAN.

Under the chairmanship of the Philippines last year, ASEAN did not reflect the expressions of concerns about China's reclamations during the November summit, which was described by many analysts as the weakest statement on the maritime dispute in years. The Philippines also hosted the ASEAN-China summit in November.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who took office in 2016, has allied his administration with China, which has in turn promised billions to help build the nation's infrastructure. Manila is also working on a joint oil and gas exploration with Beijing in the South China Sea.

Singapore is not a direct party to the maritime dispute, but the city-state, which is heavily reliant on trade, has a stake on the freedom of navigation, said Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

Allowing other countries to voice their concerns over the maritime dispute would be a display of Singapore's leadership, he said. "It is basically allowing some countries which do have a direct interest to have their voice heard during the meetings," Batongbacal said on Thursday. "It shows ... a better demonstration of leadership and chairmanship of the group."

According to the draft, leaders will also state the "importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea and recognise the benefits of having the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability and prosperity."

At the same time, they will call on parties to avoid actions that could complicate the situation in the area.

Nikkei staff writer Mikhail Flores in Manila contributed to this report.

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