BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Southeast Asian leaders will meet in Brunei on Wednesday hoping to heal wounds from damaging infighting over disputed territories, while seeking to build momentum towards a giant free trade pact.
Senior ASEAN figures emphasised ahead of the two-day summit in Brunei's capital that the group, which for more than four decades has operated by consensus, must work hard to find common ground on the East Sea issue.
And ASEAN leaders will make a united call in an end-of-summit statement for talks on the issue, but they will avoid any strong language, according to a draft of the document.
"We reaffirmed our commitment to ensuring the peaceful resolution of disputes without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law," the draft statement said.
The draft called for an "early conclusion" on a legally binding code of conduct for the sea between ASEAN and China, but did not give a timeframe.
Brunei had said one of its priorities as this year's ASEAN chair was to see the code of conduct, initially proposed in 2002, agreed by the end of the year.
The summit of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) comes after the bloc suffered deep splits last year linked to territorial disputes over the East Sea.
ASEAN leaders have said that one of the other key issues on the agenda during the Brunei summit is pressing ahead with deeper economic integration within the bloc, and also with other countries in the region.
The leaders will announce on Thursday that ASEAN will begin negotiations next month with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand for a giant free trade pact, according to the draft end-of-summit statement.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) aims to tie together ASEAN's bilateral free trade agreements with each trading partner.
It excludes the United States, which is leading talks for a rival trade pact called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). AFP