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International relations

ASEAN draft statement repeats 'concerns' over island-building

Bloc weighs veiled criticism of Beijing's moves in South China Sea ahead of Thai meeting

ASEAN country flags are seen at a convention center in Singapore.    © Reuters

BANGKOK -- The 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations appear poised to express concerns about island-building in the South China Sea for a second straight year when their foreign ministers gather next week in Thailand, making another allusion to Chinese activity.

A draft chairman's statement for the ASEAN foreign ministers' Jan. 17-18 retreat in Chiang Mai, a copy of which Nikkei has obtained, says that the member states take note of "concerns" over land reclamation in a body of water crisscrossed by competing territorial claims.

The politically sensitive wording may yet be removed, but if it makes it into the final text, Thailand, as the bloc's chair for 2019, will be following its predecessor Singapore, which used "concerns" in 2018 without naming China.

In November 2017, when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte chaired an ASEAN leaders summit, the statement of concern was absent. Some ASEAN members, such as Vietnam, have long-standing territorial disputes with China in the sea.

ASEAN aims to complete a "single draft," or basis for negotiation, for a code of conduct in the South China Sea this year, the draft statement says. China hopes to complete the negotiations within three years, Premier Li Keqiang said in November during a trip to Singapore for the East Asia Summit.

A code of conduct -- a set of rules for avoiding disputes in the body of water -- is envisioned as an upgrade to an earlier nonbinding declaration of conduct. But progress has been slow on creating a document that satisfies all sides, particularly China.

The draft statement also mentions the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a 16-nation trade deal covering ASEAN, Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India. Ministers will seek to reach a broad agreement to end negotiations this year, the document says, something they tried and failed to do in 2018.

Other topics on the agenda for next week's informal foreign ministers' meeting include cybersecurity, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and Myanmar's Rohingya refugee crisis.

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