S. China Sea, Rohingya issues on agenda of ASEAN ministerial talks

Foreign ministers of Association of Southeast Asian nations hold a meeting in Vietnam on Jan. 16, 2020. (VNA/Kyodo)

NHA TRANG, Vietnam (Kyodo) — Foreign ministers of Association of Southeast Asian nations began a two-day meeting in Vietnam on Thursday, in which South China Sea tensions and the repatriation of Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar are on the agenda for discussion.

The informal “retreat” held in the seaside town of Nha Trang marks the first ASEAN ministerial meeting to be hosted by Vietnam since it recently took over the rotating chairmanship of the 10-member regional body from Thailand.

Regarding the South China Sea, ASEAN ministers from claimant states such as Vietnam and the Philippines are expected to express concerns over Chinese land reclamation and other assertive activities, as is the norm in ASEAN meetings.

China, which claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, has installed military facilities on artificial islands created on disputed features.

Recently, Indonesia has joined the chorus by protesting incursions by Chinese fishing boats, under protection of China Coast Guard vessels, into waters it claims as its exclusive economic zone on the southern edge of the South China Sea.

Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai told reporters that the foreign ministers will also discuss the stalled process of repatriation of Rohingya Muslims in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

He said they will consider how ASEAN can assist Myanmar in finding a long-term solution to the crisis, including ways to ensure the livelihoods of Rohingya returnees who opt to return home.

More than 740,000 members of the persecuted ethnic minority group fled across the border from Myanmar’s Rakhine State since August 2017 to escape a brutal military crackdown on insurgents.

ASEAN has deepened its engagement in the thorny issue despite its principle of noninterference in the domestic affairs of member states, with Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia repeatedly calling on Myanmar to facilitate the repatriation process.

Another issue up for discussion among the ministers is a much-delayed, sprawling Asia-Pacific free trade agreement known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which ASEAN members hope to see finalized under Vietnam’s chairmanship.

Besides ASEAN, the RCEP negotiations involve Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India.

Opinions will be coordinated on whether to proceed without India, which had indicated it might pull out over concerns in key areas such as tariffs and market access.

The ASEAN foreign ministers will also discuss U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposal for a special summit with ASEAN leaders on March 14 in Las Vegas, according to an ASEAN source.

Trump invited ASEAN leaders to attend the summit in the United States after disappointing them by failing to attend ASEAN-hosted summits held last November in Bangkok, to which he sent a non-Cabinet level official in his stead.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia ,Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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