NAYPYITAW - The South China Sea territorial dispute continues to be a hot topic at the 25th ASEAN Summit that began here yesterday as leaders of the grouping are expected to address the issue in a statement to be issued by current ASEAN chair, Myanmar, today.
The dispute is made more complex with China, one of the claimant countries, flexing its muscle in the disputed area and geopolitical rivalry in Asia between Beijing and Washington.
According to an AFP report, ASEAN leaders are expected to express concern over recent developments in the South China Sea area, also claimed by Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Tensions over the dispute flared up most recently in May when China sent an oil drilling rig to waters claimed by Vietnam, triggering anti-China riots in the country.
US President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang are both meeting ASEAN leaders in separate meetings here.
ASEAN has been trying to draw up a code of conduct in the South China Sea to manage the dispute.
Wisma Putra secretary-general Datuk Othman Hashim explained during a briefing for Malaysian media that the drafting of the code of conduct was an ongoing process.
"There will, however, be an exchange of views on what countries involved will need to do to refine the code of conduct on the South China Sea that is being developed," said Othman.
Malaysia takes over the ASEAN chair from Jan 1 with the unenviable task of figuring out how to help to keep the region moving forward on the issue.
A former top ASEAN official, however, said that the regional grouping's approach to manage disputes deserved credit.
Tan Sri Ajit Singh who served as ASEAN's first secretary-general from 1993 to 1997 cited the ASEAN rule that all bilateral disputes should be taken off the table during the body's many meetings.
"Despite this rule, ASEAN meetings in fact provide an informal platform for parties involved in disputes to meet and talk quietly and informal setting on the sidelines," said Ajit.
As a result, while some countries have been known to go to war with each other over a football dispute, ASEAN has managed to develop and keep members together on common interests despite their differences, said the former Wisma Putra diplomat.