BANGKOK — Foreign Ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and their dialogue partners are gathering in Brunei for a three-day meeting beginning June 29. The ASEAN meetings are expected to discuss a range of security and economic issues.
Top diplomats representing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, 16 Western and Asian countries, and the European Union will meet in Brunei, a sultanate on the Malaysian island of Borneo.
The three-day ASEAN Regional Forum will address concerns about security issues in the Asia Pacific as well as political and economic cooperation.
North Korea on the agenda
Analysts say tensions on the Korean peninsula are likely to be discussed. North Korea, in February, tested a third nuclear device and then, a month later, threatened nuclear war against South Korea and the United States.
Representatives from all three countries usually attend the regional forum.
Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says while nuclear concerns are a priority, South China Sea tensions are more of an ASEAN focus.
“Undoubtedly, they'll also discuss the nuclear proliferation situation in North Korea. But, I think the issue really to watch is the discussion on the South China Sea. Because, last year they met in Cambodia when Cambodia was the chair and talks broke down pretty badly when the ASEAN foreign ministers, for the first time in history, couldn't come up with a consensus statement,” said Hiebert.
The South China Sea issue
China claims almost all of the South China Sea, putting it in conflict with overlapping claims by ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam as well as Taiwan.
Cambodia's tight relations with China were blamed for ASEAN's failing to start negotiations with Beijing on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
The Code of Conduct is meant to regulate how claimants behave in disputed seas to prevent any flare-ups that could lead to armed conflict.
Thailand has been coordinating relations between ASEAN and China, but has made little progress on the issue. Political analysts say Thailand, as a non-claimant ASEAN member, could be a credible broker, but has not been active enough.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, says Thailand is in a difficult diplomatic situation.
"On the other hand you have China, which is a resident superpower. Thailand is very close to China. So, somehow this balancing act. It's difficult enough to achieve a balancing act but to achieve it and to promote and achieve a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea…is not easy," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak.
Beijing has been dragging its feet on the negotiations and in recent years has more aggressively supported its territorial claims with patrol boats and escorts for its fishing vessels.
Increased competition for the South China Sea's rich fishing grounds and fossil fuels has led to occasional clashes and arrests of fishermen.
Vietnam last month demanded compensation after a Chinese ship collided with one of its fishing boats. In March Hanoi accused a Chinese ship of firing on fishermen near the disputed Paracel Islands. Both countries claim the Paracels but Beijing has controlled the islands since naval clashes with Vietnam in the 1970s.
Ships from the Philippines and China faced off last month in the Spratly islands. Similar tensions between the two last year lasted for months and raised the possibility of the U.S. getting involved because of a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines.
The U.S. declared a national interest in maintaining peace and stability and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
The U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, is expected to attend the ASEAN meetings in Brunei for the first time.
Political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak says Kerry is entering a trickier situation than his predecessor, Hillary Clinton.
"The South China Sea is now much hotter than it was under Clinton. So, it's more challenging for the U.S. to play a role as a staying power, an honest broker, with friends and allies in the region, without antagonizing China, which is a rising power," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak.
At separate meetings in Brunei, ASEAN ministers are expected to focus on challenges to economic integration.
ASEAN's ten member nations plan to form an economic community by the end of 2015 by lowering barriers to labor flows and trade.
But, Hiebert says while ASEAN claims 74 percent completion, some members are slowing down progress. He says Indonesia, ASEAN's biggest economy, has introduced protectionist measures over the last couple years that make it difficult to import foreign agricultural products.
“So, one of the toughest issues is, of course, how are you going to deal with the largest economy, which is, you know, basically half the GDP of Southeast Asia. And, then you have the much poorer countries-Burma/Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia that are really very far behind and don't really have the technical, the personnel capabilities," he said.
Hiebert says Brunei is under pressure to make progress this year as Burma will take the ASEAN chair in 2014. Many worry the reforming country may be overstretched and unable to push as much forward in the ASEAN agenda.
Brunei will host a final round of ASEAN summit meetings in October with East Asia leaders plus Australia, India, New Zealand, Russia and the United States.
ASEAN's ten members are Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.