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Issues before ASEAN ministers meeting in Manila

All throughout this week, the foreign ministers of the ten Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam , and the Philippines – will be meeting in Manila on a host of regional and international issues.

There will be meetings with other nations later this year in forums that have developed over the years since ASEAN was born in 1967. There will be a meeting with China in ASEAN+1; with China, Japan, and South Korea in ASEAN +3; and with the United States, Russia, China, India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea in an East Asia Summit.

As this year is the 50th anniversary of ASEAN, there will be commemorative ceremonies that will cite the unity, cooperation, coordination, and growth of the ten ASEAN nations which today count with some 625 million people and a combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $2.8 trillion as of 2015.

In the ASEAN meeting with the US, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will discuss three basic issues – denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, counter-terrorism, and maritime security. The first refers to North Korea’s repeated tests of its ballistic missiles, which it claims can now reach most of the US mainland. The issue of counter-terrorism will be a matter of special concern to the Philippines in the wake of the Marawi siege by Maute rebels backed by jihadist terrorists of the Islamic State.

On the matter of maritime security, the US is out to assert freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in the face of China’s claim of sovereignty in most of the sea. Many of the ASEAN countries, including the Philippines, are specially concerned about this issue. China has built outposts, complete with runways and defense installations, in some islands, which are also claimed by the Philippines and several other ASEAN states.

Last Friday, China expressed its readiness to join hands with ASEAN to maintain stability in the South China Sea and promote economic cooperation under a Code of Conduct. The statement posted on the official website of the Chinese Embassy in Manila, omitted any reference to China’s man-made installations on disputed islands in the South China Sea.

In the coming ASEAN meetings, this issue may well occupy much of the foreign ministers’ attention. ASEAN may express “serious concern” and “emphasize the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in all activities,” according to a draft communiqué being prepared for the foreign ministers. But there will be no direct confrontation, especially since the Philippines is chairman of ASEAN in this 2017 annual meeting.