NONTHABURI, Thailand >> Southeast Asian leaders agreed Sunday to work with China and other neighbors to transcend conflicts over trade policies and territorial disputes for the sake of stronger economies and regional stability.
President Donald Trump skipped the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and instead sent his national security adviser, Robert O’Brien. Last year, Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence. Both now are busy campaigning back home, and analysts say their absence left room for China to further raise its profile and clout in the region.
ASEAN leaders “welcomed the conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiations” and the commitment to sign the free trade deal next year, the summit’s host, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, said in a statement on behalf of the 10-nation regional bloc after the annual meetings.
“This will significantly contribute to an open, inclusive and rules-based international trading system and expansion of value chains,” the leaders said.
Officials said there were still final issues to be resolved by the 16 countries involved in the trade deal, which has been under negotiation for seven years.
RCEP aims to level trade barriers between ASEAN members and six other countries in a bloc encompassing nearly a third of all global trade.
ASEAN also reported progress toward setting a code of conduct with China regarding disputed waters in the South China Sea.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told other leaders attending that Beijing was committed to forging such an agreement.
“Given the complexity in the international and regional situation, our cooperation is built on a stable structure and moving forward in a positive fashion,” Li said. “This is beneficial to the region and all parties involved.”
“We support stability in the region and by doing so we have been able to cope with the instability elsewhere in the world,” he said.
On the troublesome issue of the South China Sea, Vietnamese diplomats wanted a mention in the ASEAN statement of recent Chinese encroachments into waters where Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines have exclusive rights under international law to exploit energy resources.
Earlier drafts mentioned recent “serious incidents.” That was absent from the final statement, perhaps reflecting Beijing’s clout. China and its allies in ASEAN, led by Cambodia, have opposed any attempt to use the annual meetings to vilify the Asian economic powerhouse.
Still, in what appeared to be a compromise, the ASEAN leaders said they “took note of some concerns on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”
Li welcomed progress on negotiating a code of conduct that could avert armed confrontations in one of the world’s most disputed regions.
After being accused of delaying the start of talks for years while building artificial islands with military outposts on contested reefs, China agreed to begin negotiations and both sides announced that the first of three expected rounds was concluded in July.
Li called that progress “a very important landmark” for regional stability. He said China is committed to making headway in the negotiations with ASEAN members, four of whom — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — are locked in the territorial disputes.
But the talks are highly contentious and it’s unclear if China is ready to sign a code that many governments, including the U.S., hope would be legally binding and potent enough to restrain provocative actions in a busy waterway crucial to global commerce.
Two Southeast Asian diplomats told The Associated Press that in a tense meeting in Vietnam recently, Vietnamese diplomats questioned how the negotiations could progress while flotillas of Chinese fishing boats backed by China’s coast guard and navy were swarming into disputed waters.
Chinese officials replied that ASEAN members should not allow one state “to hijack the COC process,” one of the diplomats said, referring to the code of conduct talks. The two diplomats spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to discuss the issue publicly.
“China’s continued harassment of Malaysia, Filipino and Vietnamese activities over the last year shows that it isn’t yet prepared to compromise in any substantive way. So these talks always seemed to be heading for trouble,” said Greg Poling, a South China Sea expert with the U.S.-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
The meetings Sunday touched on other challenges, including climate change. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the leaders to wean themselves from reliance on coal-fired power plants given the region’s vulnerability to extreme weather disasters and rising sea levels.
Guterres nudged Myanmar to do more to help resettle hundreds of thousands of members of its Muslim Rohingya minority who have fled violence in the country’s northwest.
“Some positive steps have been taken, but much more needs to be done to forge durable solutions and ensure effective accountability,” he said.
Asked by reporters about the recent deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants who died in a shipping container while being smuggled into Britain, Guterres urged that more be done to fight human trafficking.
“Migration is inevitable,” he said. “If migration is inevitable, then it’s better to organize it.”
ASEAN members include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Together, they comprise a fast-growing regional market of nearly 650 million people.
The proposed RCEP trade bloc aims to facilitate and set standards for trade among ASEAN and six other nations: China, Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea. It does not include the United States.