NAYPYITAW – Leaders of Southeast Asia’s regional bloc met Sunday in a historic summit overshadowed by soaring tensions in the South China Sea and growing fears over Beijing’s assertiveness in disputed waters.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations convened just days after both Vietnam and the Philippines locked horns with China in contested territory, stoking international alarm. Both nations pushed at the summit for stronger action to confront China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.
ASEAN foreign ministers expressed “serious concerns over the on-going developments” in a joint statement released on the eve of the summit as the bloc sought to present a unified front in dealing with the region’s powerful neighbor.
The summit, hosted for the first time by Myanmar in its sprawling new capital, Naypyitaw, was set to be dominated by discussion of the South China Sea, which is crisscrossed by key shipping lanes and thought to contain vast energy reserves.
Myanmar’s chairmanship is the first time it has taken the helm of ASEAN, despite having been a member for 17 years, as concerns about the rights record of the former junta kept the country on the sidelines.
But reforms under a quasi-civilian regime that came to power in 2011 have burnished the country’s international standing and seen the removal of most Western sanctions.
Tensions flared last week after Beijing relocated a deep-water oil rig into territory also claimed by Hanoi.
The area around the drilling well has since seen several collisions between Chinese and Vietnamese ships, with the communist neighbors each blaming the other for the rise in tensions.
China and Vietnam, which fought a brief border war in 1979, frequently trade diplomatic barbs over oil exploration, fishing rights and the Spratly and Paracel Islands.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on both countries to “exercise the utmost restraint” in the sea, United Nations deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said Friday.
Observers have said Beijing’s decision to move the rig could have been a tit-for-tat response to a recent visit to the region by U.S. President Barack Obama, who reaffirmed support for Asian allies the Philippines and Japan, which is locked in its own maritime territorial dispute with China.
Beijing claims sovereign rights to almost the whole of the South China Sea.
The South China Sea is also claimed in part by ASEAN members Brunei and Malaysia as well as Taiwan.