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Politics

South China Sea may strain ASEAN unity this year

Foreign ministers to begin tackling the thorny issue on Sunday

MANILA -- The ability of Southeast Asia's regional bloc to tackle territorial disputes in the South China Sea with a united front will be tested as a newly China-friendly Philippines leads the discussions in that effort.

Elephant in the room

As this year's chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Philippines will host an informal conference of foreign ministers from the bloc from Sunday to Tuesday on Boracay Island, where officials from the 10 member states will exchange opinions. The topics covered at the forum will go a long way toward determining the agendas of future ASEAN meetings, including summits scheduled for April and November.

One area of concern is whether the association can build a framework for a legally binding code of conduct designed to prevent conflicts in the South China Sea. In 2013, the group and China agreed to begin discussing the issue. At a summit in September 2016, participants pledged to work toward an agreement in mid-2017. This coming August, when the ASEAN Regional Forum involving Japan, China and the U.S. takes place, will likely mark a critical juncture.

The Philippines claims the Scarborough Shoal, which China has effectively seized, as its territory. In 2013, then-Philippine President Benigno Aquino brought the matter to the International Criminal Court. Aquino sought to counter China by coordinating with ally America and other ASEAN members.

Economic gains taking precedence

But the country's course has taken a sudden shift under current President Rodrigo Duterte. He said in June 2016 that the Philippines would discuss the South China Sea issue with China at some point, but that "now was not the time." By staying silent on the Philippines' clear victory in a ruling from The Hague last July, Duterte has been taking an approach that seeks greater economic support from China.

As the chair of the ASEAN this year, the Philippines will want to steer clear of upsetting China. The association had a trying experience in 2012, when Cambodia was chair. As a recipient of generous economic aid from China, Cambodia sided with Beijing on the South China Sea issue.

Discussions fell through and foreign ministers could not adopt a joint statement. The bitter aftertaste later cast shadows on the association's efforts to establish the ASEAN Economic Community.

With the Philippines softening up on China, other member states that have conflicts with China may feel that the rug has been pulled out from under them. At the 2014 summit, Malaysia and Indonesia toned down the rhetoric against China, along with Vietnam, which has traditionally taken a position in sync with the Philippines.

If the Philippines makes a wrong move as chair, the ASEAN could become vulnerable. With the association commemorating 50 years since its founding, the Philippines' ability to maintain unity will be tested.

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