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Politics

Sunnylands impact to be tested in Laos

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says goodbye as he boards his plane in Vientiane, Laos, on Jan. 25, 2016, before leaving for Phnom Penh, Cambodia.   © REUTERS/Jacquelyn Martin/Pool

VIENTIANE -- More than a week since their leaders reaffirmed cooperation with the U.S., Southeast Asian foreign ministers will meet here Saturday for their annual retreat to discuss regional issues, with the South China Sea dispute likely dominating the agenda.

     The retreat usually serves as a curtain raiser and possible agenda setter for meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, many of which are scheduled this year. Laos is this year's chair.

     U.S. President Barack Obama convened a special two-day summit with ASEAN leaders last week in Sunnylands, California, where he sought greater cooperation with the bloc amid China's growing economic and political clout in the region. A joint statement after the summit called for "mutual respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, equality and political independence of all nations." It also said disputes should be resolved in accordance with international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

     Beijing has pursued reclamation projects on at least seven islands to cement its territorial claim over the South China Sea despite competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. While China was not mentioned in the statement, security analysts believe the remarks to have been aimed at the country.

     In any case, the U.S.-ASEAN summit did not deter China, as the Asian heavyweight appeared to have ramped up operations in the contested waterway after the California gathering.

     U.S. Pacific Command chief Harry Harris on Tuesday accused Beijing of militarizing the South China Sea by deploying surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the Paracel Archipelago and new radars on Cuarteron Reef in the Spratlys.

     The Philippines said it intends to make the South China Sea dispute a priority agenda during the retreat.

     "We are expressing concern over these developments," including the reported missiles on Woody Island, foreign ministry spokesperson Charles Jose said Tuesday. "Of course, all these things raise our concern and its effect on freedom of navigation, over flight and unimpeded flow of commerce. All these things, we put them together."

     "In this meeting, we will continue to express our concern with the developments in the South China Sea," he said.

     Vietnam will also talk about developments in the South China Sea, its foreign ministry said Thursday.

     Indonesia, for its part, will call for the speedy establishment of a long-delayed legally binding code of conduct for the South China Sea.

     "This is not an easy job," Indonesian foreign ministry official Derry Aman said Thursday. "But Indonesia is determined to continue to lead discussions concerning the COC. We don't want this to no longer stay a priority."

     The Philippines has campaigned for the inclusion of Beijing's island-building as a threat to regional peace and stability in past meetings' outcome documents.

     The Philippines' Jose said a chair's statement will be issued after the retreat, but a geopolitical analyst doubts that it will be hard on China.

     "Laos is economically dependent on Beijing, so it will be very careful in not pissing off China," said Richard Heydarian, a political science professor at De la Salle University in Manila.

     Nevertheless, Heydarian expects Laos to be a "responsible chair," pointing out that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's visit in January has increased pressure on Laos.

     Malaysia's foreign ministry said Thursday that ministers will "exchange views on regional and international issues of common concern as well as means to enhance ASEAN relations with its dialogue partners."

     But even as major dialogue partners Washington and Beijing jostle for Southeast Asian influence, Indonesia said it will underscore "the importance of ASEAN unity and centrality."

Nikkei staff writers Minoru Satake in Manila, Erwida Maulia in Jakarta, and CK Tan in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.

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