Territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the creation of a regional free trade area are expected to top the agenda at the two-day meeting of Southeast Asian leaders in Brunei.
The annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) started Wednesday at a convention center in Brunei. Later on, leaders from the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and other nations wil join the talks.
Many of the leaders at the ASEAN summit traveled to Brunei directly from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which held its annual two-day meeting this week in Bali, Indonesia.
One of the top goals of the ASEAN summit is to advance talks on a proposed free trade area spanning the entire Southeast Asian region, which is home to over 600 million people. ASEAN hopes to create the common market area by 2015.
Hal Hill, a professor of Southeast Asian economies at the Australian National University, tells VOA the many different types of economies represented in ASEAN will pose challenges to the creation of such a free trade area.
"It includes free trade Singapore along with some communist regimes like Vietnam that have a lot of trade protections. ASEAN can't move and won't move like the European Union, but it will actually I think send a signal that it's open for business with increasingly open frontiers within the 10 [nations]," opined Hill.
U.S. President Barack Obama was forced to cancel his trip to both summits because of a domestic political dispute that led to a partial government shutdown. Representing the U.S. in his place is Secretary of State John Kerry.
The top U.S. diplomat is expected to urge ASEAN and China to resolve maritime disputes in the South China Sea. Four ASEAN member states, including this year's host, Brunei, have competing claims with China in the energy-rich area.
China is working with ASEAN on a long-delayed, legally binding Code of Conduct to manage the maritime tensions, but Beijing is reluctant to discuss the disputes at multilateral forums such as ASEAN. It instead prefers dealing with each country individually, giving it a much stronger position in any negotiations.
China has rejected accusations it is trying to divide Southeast Asian countries. Those accusations intensified after last year's ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh, when disagreements over territorial disputes kept the bloc from producing a group statement for the first time in its 45-year history.
Hill, the Southeast Asian expert, said that Beijing did partly play a "divide and rule" strategy in the region at last year's summit. He points out that many Southeast Asian countries face a tough choice when dealing with China.
"The states adjoining China are very small, very poor countries next to a colossus, so they have to balance the importance of their relations with China, which is of course now the dominant economic and commercial power in the region, along with their attachment to ASEAN," noted Hill.
Hill expects ASEAN to form a "broadly united front" against China on the maritime disputes at this year's summit.
Some ASEAN members, including the Philippines and Vietnam, accuse China of using its rising military prowess and bullying tactics in the South China Sea and have formed closer military alliances with the U.S. as a result.
Obama's absence has prompted some to question Washington's so-called "pivot" to Asia. On Tuesday, Obama acknowledged China did not mind his absence, but insisted it will not affect the U.S. role in Asia.