South-East Asian leaders were urged on Tuesday to work more closely together amid threats posed by terrorism, climate change, fragile economic growth, and divisive issues such as the South China Sea dispute.
“Against this backdrop, there is a need for us to closely follow these developments and continue to enhance ASEAN cooperation and collaboration with the international community,” said Lao President Bounnhang Vorachit, formally opening a regional summit.
The leaders of the 10-country Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) were meeting in Vientiane for the annual summit, which US President Barack Obama was also attending for the last time.
“Although the global economy has gradually recovered, growth remains slow and fragile,” Vorachit warned.
The leaders were expected to express serious concern over Chinese land reclamation in the South China Sea, according to a draft statement which will be issued at the end of the summit.
“We remain strongly concerned over recent and ongoing developments and took note of the concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region,” the draft statement said.
However, in what is being seen as a diplomatic coup for China, the leaders were unlikely to make any official mention of the international Permanent Court of Arbitration's July ruling that Beijing had no legal right to claim a large part of the area.
China has previously rejected the ruling as “null and void.”
Ahead of the summit, the Philippines warned China might be preparing new constructions in the South China Sea after 10 ships, including four that look like barges, were spotted near the disputed Scarborough Shoal.
“This is very worrisome because it's ours,” Defense Secretary Lorenzana told reporters in Vientiane. “If they succeed in building an island and construct (structures) there, we can't take it back anymore.”
Obama was expected to bring up the issue with the ASEAN leaders and discuss the need to resolve the territorial disputes under international law, according to the White House.
He was also set to reassure the South-East Asian leaders of the United States’ commitment to the region during the visit to Laos, the first by an incumbent American president.
The ASEAN, which was founded in 1967, includes 10 countries with a combined total of over 620 million people from diverse cultures and religions.
The member countries are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.