PHNOM PENH, Cambodia— A rocket launch planned by North Korea and long-broiling disputes over the South China Sea are expected to dominate Southeast Asia’s annual diplomatic summit this week, while elections in long-repressed Myanmar have helped turn a perennial troublemaker into a bright spot.
Cambodia is hosting the two-day summit of leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations starting Tuesday. The stated focus is on turning the 10 disparate nations — and their combined population of 600 million — into a European Union-like community by 2015, but many other issues will be discussed on the sidelines.
ASEAN foreign ministers, meeting ahead of their leaders, expressed alarm over the North Korean rocket launch. U.S. officials say the rocket is actually a test of long-range missile technology and that parts could fall in Southeast Asia. North Korea insists it is planning to place a peaceful observation satellite into orbit sometime between April 12 and 16.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario raised “grave concern” over the launch, while Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said it would damage chances for a resumption of six-nation talks on North Korea’s nuclear program.
Territorial conflicts in the resource-rich South China Sea also came up in the pre-summit ministerial meetings.
China, Taiwan and ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei all make various claims on the sea, which China claims in its entirety. The Philippines and Vietnam in particular have been at odds with Beijing over the region in recent months, with diplomatic clashes erupting over oil and gas exploration and fishing rights.
Del Rosario suggested that Manila may not support a proposed regional “code of conduct” aimed at preventing violent clashes over the rival claims if it does not include a Philippine proposal for the segregation of disputed areas so countries can harness resources in non-contested locations.
ASEAN, founded in 1967 as a bulwark against communism in the Cold War era, has often been caught in the crosscurrents of major conflicts. Currently, the bloc is walking a tightrope between a rising China and an America that is reasserting its status as an Asia-Pacific power.
Both wield tremendous influence on ASEAN, which has become a battleground for political and security clout and export markets. After being led this past year by Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest democracy, ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship is shifting to several smaller, less democratic nations starting with Cambodia, a China ally.
Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Phnom Penh on the eve of the summit. China also rapidly came to the rescue after Cambodia sought help with the logistical challenge of managing ASEAN, which holds more than 1,000 meetings each year.
China donated $400,000 worth of equipment, including 200 desktop computers, 100 laptops, 60 laser printers and 20 fax machines, along with voice recorders, projectors and scanners, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency.
The summit’s main agenda on Tuesday is to ensure that Southeast Asia can meet an ambitious goal of transforming in three years into an EU-like single market and production base, where people and goods can travel seamlessly. A shared currency is not being considered.
The move has been seen as a crucial leverage amid the rise of Asian powerhouses like China and India.
ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said the bloc “is on track” to meet the 2015 deadline, although there are some issues, including delays by some members to work on needed legislation.
Leaders will have a chance to raise any issue when they closet themselves on Wednesday in a traditional retreat — a kind of diplomatic free-for-all discussion.
Those discussions have frequently been used to reprimand Myanmar, which until last year was ruled by a military junta with an atrocious human rights record. Myanmar joined ASEAN in 1997 despite protests from the U.S. and European governments.
Surin said a wave of reforms in Myanmar in recent months, including a by-election Sunday that appears to have sent pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi to Parliament, are a welcome change.
“It’s generally a relief that it is moving away from being a contentious issue,” Surin said.
Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin gave an upbeat assessment of the election. “It was free, fair and transparent,” he told The Associated Press in Phnom Penh.
ASEAN was founded by Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand as a trade bloc that later evolved into a political, cultural and economic club. Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia joined from 1984 to 1999.
Associated Press writer Sopheng Cheang contributed to this report.