LEADERS of Asian countries will tackle the rising tensions in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) at the upcoming Association of Southeast Asian Nations-US summit to be held at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California next week.
President Benigno Aquino 3rd and his counterparts from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam will attend the summit on February 15 to 16, which will be hosted by US President Barack Obama.
The leaders are expected to discuss economic and security issues, including the festering sea disputes.
Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Helen dela Vega said the summit will provide leaders a forum to strengthen cooperation on political, security and economic issues under the new US-Asean strategic partnership, which was launched in November 2015 in Kuala Lumpur.
“The summit aims to explore how Asean and the US after elevating their relations to strategic partnership level can work more effectively together; and especially now with the establishment of the Asean community,” Dela Vega told reporters.
She said the leaders are expected to discuss the Asean economic integration in the context of the regional bloc’s strategic partnership with the US.
Since the meeting will have a “retreat” format, the leaders will be free to initiate discussions on any issue.
“We are looking at maritime security, transnational challenges and issues like countering violent extremism. It’s going to be a more informal, less structured atmosphere. So we expect leaders to be free, to raise any issues that might be of interest to them,” Dela Vega added.
“I think that it is natural to expect that maritime security will be [an]important issue during the summit. To what extent and how it will evolve, the expectation is that it will be less-structured so any leader may be free to initiate a discussion on this,” she said.
The Philippines, backed by the United States, has criticized China’s island-building in the contested waters.
During his visit to the Philippines for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit last year, Obama stressed his country’s commitment to defend the Philippines if needed.
China and the US are among Asean’s partner-nations.
China claims almost the entire resource-rich South China Sea. It has overlapping claims with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
After the summit, Aquino will go to Los Angeles to address the Los Angeles World Affairs Council (LAWAC) at the Intercontinental Hotel on February 16.
In its website, LAWAC said Aquino will discuss “the growing tension between the Philippines and China over sovereignty issues in the South China Sea.”
“He will also talk about the new defense agreement between Manila and Washington, security in East Asia, and the future for economic growth in the Philippines and its neighbors in South East Asia,” it said.
Aquino will also meet with executives of at least three major LA-based companies, and the Filipino community in Los Angeles, said Dela Vega.
Before he heads back to Manila, the president will receive an honorary degree from the Loyola Marymount University.
CATHERINE S. VALENTE