A major summit between Southeast nations is getting under way. The South China Sea dispute, which affects many countries participating, will require leaders to steer talks through extremely choppy waters.
Southeast Asian foreign ministers met in Cambodia on Saturday, as their countries were poised to take part in a regional summit that is expected to be overshadowed by disagreements over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
“We wish that we would be able to solve this problem together," Surin Pitsuwan, secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), said to reporters as the meeting began in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh.
"We hope that if there is anything we can do to help to build this new culture of norms ... of new habits of working together we would like to help."
Barack Obama will attend on Tuesday. It will be the American president's first world diplomatic appearance since he was re-elected last week.
About 10,000 troops and police are protecting the international meeting, which is to be the biggest that Cambodia has hosted in recent years.
ASEAN heads of state will attend the summit on Sunday before engaging in talks with eight other countries, which include China and the United States.
The South China Sea dispute, which is high on the agenda, is anticipated to become a serious quandary at the meeting. Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan have claims to territory in the area, which is believed to have fossil fuel resources. But China has made sovereign claims to virtually the whole area in question. The last ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting ended on a sour note in Phnom Penh in July because of disagreement over the South China Sea; following that gathering, no joint communiqué was produced for the first time in 45 years.
At the summit, ASEAN leaders are also aiming to start negotiating a free trade zone that would include China, Japan, India and Australia, among other Asian countries. They are also expected to back a controversial declaration to support human rights.
More than 60 organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have called on ASEAN to revise the text.
sej/ipj (AFP, AP)