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Nov. 3, 2019, 5:28 p.m. EST

With Trump absent, ASEAN charts path for China-led trade bloc

Southeast Asian nations push for stability, aim to sign free-trade deal next year

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By Associated Press

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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.

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