Luang Prabang (Laos) | China's growingly assertive posture in the South China Sea and escalating violence in Myanmar topped the agenda for Southeast Asian diplomats meeting in Laos on Monday.
The gathering is the first high-level meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations since Laos took over the rotating chairmanship.
The diplomats for the 10 nations with a combined population of nearly 650 million and GDP of more than USD 3 trillion will work to strategise on issues of regional peace, security and stability. They were also discussing economic cooperation and other issues under the year's theme “enhancing connectivity and resilience”.
Of the ASEAN member nations, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Brunei and Laos, several have competing maritime claims in the South China Sea with China.
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea, through which an estimated $5 trillion in international trade passes each year, which has led it into direct confrontations, most notably with the Philippines and Vietnam.
The ASEAN meeting in the historic city of Luang Prabang comes on the same day that Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, was to be meeting with top officials in Hanoi, among other things to discuss the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea.
The Philippines has been looking for more support from its ASEAN neighbours, amid increasingly tense hostilities with China, primarily off of the Second Thomas Shoal, which many worry could escalate into a broader armed conflict that could involve Washington, Manila's longtime treaty ally.
The Philippine government protested the Chinese coast guard's use of water cannon, a military-grade laser and dangerous blocking maneuvers that had caused minor collisions off the Philippine-occupied shoal.
China and ASEAN agreed in 2012 to a declaration on conduct in the South China Sea, seeking to “enhance favourable conditions for a peaceful and durable solution of differences and disputes,” but there has been little sign of adherence to that in recent years.
Under last year's chair, Indonesia, ASEAN agreed with China on guidelines to accelerate negotiations for a South China Sea code of conduct, but that has yet to produce results.
With communist Laos' close ties with neighbouring China, and the fact that it is landlocked so has no South China Sea claims of its own, many have been sceptical that it will be able to achieve any breakthrough during its year as ASEAN chair.
A draft copy of Laos' final statement to be issued later Monday, obtained by The Associated Press, makes no direct mention of China's claims, but does stress several times the need to respect the United Nations convention on the law of the sea.
Under that convention, a UN-backed tribunal ruled in 2016 that China's expansive claims in the South China Sea on historical grounds were invalid and that Beijing had violated the right of Filipinos to fish in the shoal.
China has refused to participate in the arbitration, rejected its outcome and continues to defy it.
In its statement, Laos says ASEAN discussed concerns “of the land reclamations, activities, serious incidents in the area, including actions that put the safety of all persons at risk”, and “emphasised the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants”.
Laos is the first ASEAN country that shares a border with Myanmar to serve as chair since the military seized control of the country in February 2021 from the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
ASEAN has developed a “Five-Point Consensus” plan for peace, which calls for the immediate cessation of violence, a dialogue among all concerned parties, mediation by an ASEAN special envoy, provision of humanitarian aid through ASEAN channels, and a visit to Myanmar by the special envoy to meet all concerned parties.
The military leadership in Myanmar has so far ignored the plan. At the same time, a humanitarian crisis is growing, with more than 2.6 million people forced from their homes due to escalating violence, according to the United Nations.
Laos has already sent its special envoy to Myanmar for meetings with the head of the ruling military council and other top officials in an attempt to make progress on the five-point consensus.
Myanmar has been prohibited from sending its foreign minister or any political representative to the ASEAN meetings since the end of 2021 when it blocked the group's envoy from meeting with Suu Kyi. It is represented in Luang Prabang by a non-political Foreign Ministry official instead.
In the draft of its final statement, Laos called Myanmar an “integral part of ASEAN” and said the group was committed to “assisting Myanmar in finding a peaceful and durable solution to the ongoing crisis” through the implementation of the five-point consensus.