U.S., China top diplomats to visit Manila for ASEAN meetings

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 31) — Foreign ministers (FMs) of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and several other countries descend on Manila this weekend for a series of meetings to tackle regional issues as the bloc marks its 50th founding anniversary.

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), the bloc's ministers are expected to discuss a wide range of topics including the South China Sea disputes, violent extremism and tensions in the Korean Peninsula - in the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting (AMM) on Saturday, and in the ASEAN Regional Forum  (ARF) on Monday, where they will be joined by ministers from other participating countries.

Also read: Duterte highlights ASEAN principle of non-interference

The following are the ASEAN FMs:

  • Pehin Dato' Lim Jock Seng - Brunei Darussalam
  • Prak Sokhonn - Cambodia
  • Retno L.P. Marsudi - Indonesia
  • Saleumxay Kommasith - Lao PDR
  • Dato' Sri Anifah HJ Aman - Malaysia
  • U Kyaw Tin - Myanmar
  • Alan Peter S. Cayetano - Philippines
  • Dr Vivian Balakrishnan - Singapore
  • Don Pramudwinai - Thailand
  • Pham Binh Minh - Vietnam

Watch: The member states of ASEAN

The following are non-ASEAN members of the ARF:

  • Julie Bishop - Australia
  • Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali - Bangladesh
  • Chrystia Freeland - Canada
  • Wang Yi - China
  • Smt. Sushma Swaraj - India
  • Fumio Kishida - Japan
  • Ri Yong-ho - North Korea
  • Kang Kyung-wha - South Korea
  • Tsend Munkh-Orgil - Mongolia
  • Gerry Brownlee - New Zealand
  • Sartaj Aziz - Pakistan
  • Rimbink Pato - Papua New Guinea
  • Sergey Lavrov - Russia
  • Ravi Karunanayake - Sri Lanka
  • Hernani Coelho - Timor-Leste
  • Rex Tillerson - United States

The European Union will send Federica Mogherini, its High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh will be present at the meetings.

Code of Conduct

As this year's ASEAN Chair, the Philippines will push to formalize the Framework of a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, which a technical working group from the member states and China finished drafting in May.

The ASEAN and Chinese FMs are expected to greenlight the Framework-COC, a document that will provide a basis for a set of rules to govern conduct in the disputed waters. It has been a long time coming - ever since ASEAN and China signed the "Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea" in 2002.

Also read: China, ASEAN agree on South China Sea code framework

"We expect that the joint working group will begin discussions on the actual Code of Conduct as soon as the approval process for the Framework-COC is finished," said DFA Spokesperson Robespierre Bolivar.

If it gets the ultimate approval from the leaders of ASEAN and China, the Framework-COC will be the highlight and legacy of the Philippine Chairmanship. Both sides will draft the COC itself next year under Singapore's ASEAN Chairmanship - with the Philippines as coordinator.

The COC is one of the ways ASEAN hopes to avoid or at least manage tensions in the South China Sea among the different claimant states: the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and China. Taiwan also stakes a claim but, under the One-China Policy, ASEAN considers it a renegade province of China.

Non-interference

In a prepared message read out in a commemorative ceremony at the DFA on Monday morning, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said ASEAN will seek to enhance cooperation with countries outside the region to ensure the welfare of ASEAN citizens and the bloc's centrality, unity and solidarity.

"Indeed, the success of ASEAN is derived from its mutual respect among all the member states, peaceful resolution of disputes, non-interference in internal affairs of each nation and denunciation of threat and use of force," Cayetano said in the message.

Composed mostly of developing countries, ASEAN is hard-pressed to steer its course among traditional global powers and a rising regional behemoth, China.

Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Manila to forge a bureaucratic cooperation agreement with the DFA. In a media conference, he urged "non-regional forces" to lay off the region's geopolitics.

Also read: China ready to be good neighbor, brother — Wang Yi

"If there are still some non-regional forces or forces in the region - they don't want to see stability in the South China Sea and they still want to stir up trouble in the South China Sea - we need to stand together and say 'no' to them together," Wang said.

He did not name any country in particular but China has repeatedly bristled at the U.S. carrying out freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea.

The ASEAN FMs will sit down with Wang, Tillerson and the other diplomats individually in so-called ASEAN+1 meetings, and then together for the ASEAN Regional Forum.

Bolivar told reporters, regional security will be top of mind in those meetings.

Security Issues

Aside from the yearly Joint Communiqué, the ASEAN FMs are expected to come up with a separate document on combating violent extremism.

In June, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to join forces in fighting the spread of terrorism, particularly the threat of Islamic State (IS) fighters and their ideology finding their way into the region as the terror group loses ground in the Middle East.

The Philippines is still battling the IS-inspired Maute group in Marawi City.

Bolivar said the ASEAN FMs will push to include the fight against extremism in the bloc's mainstream efforts.

Korean Peninsula

Both the Democratic People's Republic of (North) Korea and the Republic of (South) Korea are regular participants of the ASEAN Regional Forum. Their presence will present an opportunity to discuss tensions between the two countries.

In April, the ASEAN FMs called on North Korea to "exercise restraint" and expressed support for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Pyongyang has continued making and testing missiles, including one that could reach the U.S. mainland, according to experts.

Also read: U.S. slams North Korea missile test as Kim claims 'whole U.S. mainland' in reach

Bolivar said the ASEAN ministers are likely to echo their earlier statement.

Relevance

But perhaps the largest challenge for ASEAN is to assert its own relevance among its citizens.

"Kasi nga, unfortunately, yung knowledge or awareness of ASEAN is not really that significant, even in the Philippines, even now that we're Chair. So that's one of the priorities, to communicate yung achievements ng ASEAN, ano yung benefit ng ASEAN sa mga tao," said Bolivar.

Cayetano has urged the different government agencies to pour resources into promoting the regional bloc among civil servants and the general public.

In the ASEAN Summit in April, the bloc's leaders signed an agreement that acknowledged the need for their individual bureaucracies to follow through on deliverables.

"The challenge now for the DFA is how to translate these seemingly abstract ideas into concrete, relatable terms so that the public can fully appreciate ASEAN," Cayetano said.