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The EU has agreed to pursue stalled free-trade talks with Southeast Asia a day ahead of the ASEAN summit. But the tense gathering is expected to rebuke China, the EU's second largest trading partner.
The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the EU agreed Sunday to explore a free-trade agreement, which initially began in 2007 but stalled in 2009 following EU concerns over Myanmar's human rights record. The move comes as the 10-member bloc is expected to merge into a single market by the end of the year.
"The ministers and the EU trade commissioner were pleased with the growing momentum in economic cooperation, which contributed to the deepening of economic relations between the two regions," the two regional blocs said in a joint-statement.
The EU is ASEAN's second-largest trading partner with total trade amounting to $248 billion in 2014, the statement said, adding that the EU also makes up 21.3 percent of trade inflows into Southeast Asia.
"The EU is committed to have a region-to-region free-trade agreement," European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom told reporters following talks with ASEAN leaders.
"But it is important that we get it right and that is why we proposed this roadmap, a stock-taking event by the end of the year."
The commissioner's statement comes one day ahead of the annual ASEAN summit. However, a key talking point of this year's summit is China's maneuvers in the South China Sea, which has proven to be a controversial topic among ASEAN countries.
The move could raise tensions as the EU is China's largest trading partner with trade amounting to more than 1 billion euros ($1.09 billion) per day, according to reports by the European Commission.
China's "militarizing" of the South China Sea is "infringing on the rights of the other states," Filipino Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario told ASEAN foreign ministers at a meeting on Sunday.
The Philippines have been critical of China's territorial expansion for years. However, the country has intensified its criticism recently after satellite images emerged detailing China's land reclamation and construction in the disputed sea.
"We believe that if these massive reclamations are allowed to be completed, our neighbor will succeed in defining and imposing its unlawful sovereignty claim over more than 85 perfect of the South China Sea," the minister said.
Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam also uphold territorial claims in the South China Sea, but Beijing continues to claim nearly the entire strategic waterway. The area is considered of prime importance to the ASEAN bloc as it is rich in energy reserves, fishery resources and is a vital route for international trade.
Under China's 'de facto control'?
Chinese naval vessels challenged a Philippine military plane patrolling disputed areas in the South China Sea on Sunday, a day ahead of the ASEAN summit where leaders are expected to rebuke China over its claims to the South China Sea.
A Chinese vessel is seen expanding structures and land on a reef in the South China Sea, a move the Philippines government says is destroying the waterway's ecosystem
The naval vessels told the Islander plane that it was in Chinese territory and ordered it to leave immediately. The military plane was flying over the Subi Reef, considered a highly-contested area in the waterway.
"But our pilots ignored the challenge because of the DOC despite (the plane being) within our territory and they reported the incident to our superiors," Chinese military spokesman Brigadier General Joselito Kakilala told AFP in a stated.
The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, also known as DOC, prevents China, the Phillippines and other Southeast Asian nations from resorting to violence in settling disputes over the South China Sea. The agreement was signed in 2002.
ls/jil (AP, AFP, dpa)