Asean May Go Soft on China on Sea Row

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Southeast Asian leaders will express serious concern over territorial disputes in the South China Sea when they gather in an annual summit in Manila on Saturday, but a draft of a communiqué to be issued at the end of the meeting indicates they will adopt subdued language on a conflict that has increasingly alarmed Asian and Western governments.

The Philippines’ President Duterte, who has warmed once-frosty relations with China, plays host to his counterparts in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) on Saturday.

The summits have spotlighted the escalating conflicts involving four Asean member states, Taiwan and China in recent years.

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Assert sovereignty

Sen. Franklin Drilon, minority leader of the Philippine Senate, said on Wednesday Manila should take the opportunity as chair of this year’s summit to reassert its sovereignty over the country’s territory in the South China Sea.

He said the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled last year in favor of the Philippines and invalidated China’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea.

“We have a decision in our favor. We must continue to avail [ourselves] of every opportunity to assert that ruling by the arbitral court,” Drilon said.

But a draft of the “chairman’s statement” to be issued at the end of the summit seen by The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence-France-Presse neither mentions China directly nor refers to the arbitration decision and expresses serious concerns only “by some leaders” over the “escalation of activities in the area.”

“We shared the serious concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments and escalation of activities in the area which may further raise tensions and erode trust and confidence in the region,” the draft statement says.

The 20-page draft devotes fewer paragraphs and repeats language of concern already used in past Asean communiqués.

The statement issued by Laos last year, when it led the 10-nation regional bloc, had a longer discussion of the territorial rifts and expressed concerns over “land reclamations,” a reference to China’s newly built islands in the disputed waters, although it did not mention the Asian superpower by name.

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