NAY PYI TAW, Myanmar - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong arrives here today for the 24th ASEAN Summit amid heightened tensions in the South China Sea between China and two of the grouping's member nations, Vietnam and the Philippines.
There were two flare-ups this week and how ASEAN leaders respond to them will be closely watched as it would be seen as yet another test of ASEAN unity, analysts told The Straits Times.
The incidents could also intensify ASEAN efforts to put in place a formal code of conduct with China to manage disputes without the use of force, they added.
Earlier this week, ships from Vietnam and China collided in disputed waters off the Paracel Islands, where China wants to set up an oil rig.
In another incident on Tuesday, the Philippines detained 11 crewmen of a Chinese fishing boat near the Spratlys.
The events led the United States to warn against "dangerous conduct and intimidation" in the South China Sea while Singapore urged self-restraint.
But for host Myanmar, the incidents look set to overshadow its milestone achievement as chairman of the summit for the first time since it joined ASEAN in 1997.
Said Dr Ian Storey, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas): "The events of this past week represent a very serious escalation of tensions in the South China Sea and this means the dispute will be front and centre when ASEAN (leaders) meet this weekend.''
He added: "The events will likely provide another test of ASEAN unity on the South China Sea."
Some ASEAN members will also point to the rising tensions as proof of the urgent need for the leaders to agree on a code of conduct, he said.
Dr Storey sees three possible outcomes: a communique that reiterates calls for restraint by all sides and a speedy conclusion to the code of conduct talks; a divided ASEAN that fails to issue a final communique as was the case in Phnom Penh in 2012; or a strong statement of concern that criticises China's provocative behaviour.
Analysts also expect leaders to discuss progress on the creation of a single ASEAN economic market by next year; the development of a post-2015 ASEAN vision; and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade pact between ASEAN and six countries, including China, Japan and India.
All eyes will also be on Myanmar as it strives to prove it can be an effective chairman, said Ms Moe Thuzar of the ASEAN Studies Centre in Iseas. "In its debut role, Myanmar will highlight issues that are dear to its emerging status as well as reflect its interest to engage with, and to be kept engaged by, the world powers."
Ms Thuzar also expects a sober tone to permeate talks amid political uncertainty in nations such as Thailand and Indonesia.
With the stepping down of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand's team will be led by Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs Sihasak Phuangketkeow, the Bangkok Post newspaper said.
Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will attend his last summit, as his country will elect a new president in July.
PM Lee's team includes Minister for Trade and Industry Lim Hng Kiang and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam, who is also the Minister for Law, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) said yesterday.
The PMO statement said ASEAN leaders will discuss, among other things, progress made in community-building efforts towards the establishment of an ASEAN Community by next year.
They will also meet representatives of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly, Civil Society Organisations and ASEAN Youth.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean will be Acting Prime Minister this weekend.
In a separate statement, the Trade and Industry Ministry said Mr Lim will attend the ASEAN Economic Community Council meeting today, to discuss the progress made on ASEAN's bid to become a single market by next year.
This article was published on May 10 in The Straits Times.
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