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Straight from G20 to Asean: issues to watch as Asia’s leaders gather in Laos

Leaders of the 10-member Asean will meet heads of state from other regional powers including China, South Korea, Japan and the United States in Laos starting on Tuesday.

The annual summit, which will last through Thursday, is expected to be overshadowed by a range of regional and bilateral issues, most notably the South China Sea disputes.

We give you a preview of the issues that will likely dominate the meeting this year.

Asean consensus on South China Sea

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is likely to release a joint communique expressing its strong concerns over constructions of man-made islands, mostly by Beijing, in the South China Sea. Four of the Asean’s member states have territorial disputes with China. But pressure from Beijing means the regional bloc is not likely to include the reference to a recent ruling by an international court that has rejected Beijing’s historical claims over the troubled waters.

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China-Philippines relations

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has said he will not raise the South China Sea issue during the Asean summit. But he made it clear that he would bring up the issue during a one-on-one meeting with Premier Li Keqiang.

Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Duterte also planned to ask about the alleged Chinese reclamation activities in the disputed reef of Scarborough Shoal. Duterte said last week that the Philippine coast guard spotted Chinese barges in the area, which sparked speculation over whether China was building more man-made islands in the sea.

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US-Philippines relations

US President Barack Obama called off what would have been his first meeting with Duterte, after Duterte described Obama as “son of a whore”, Reuters reported, quoting National Security Council spokesman Ned Price. Duterte later expressed regret over the slur. Interactions between the two leaders will still be closely watched as Duterte has previously hinted that the Philippines, which has been a key US ally in its disputes with China over the South China Sea, would distance itself from the US as the new leaders tries to break ice with China for the country’s support in his domestic reform agenda.

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China-Japan relations

Prior to his departure from Hangzhou after a bilateral meeting with President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated Tokyo’s positions that it was important to abide by the rule of law and that freedom of navigation was guaranteed. “I will express the clear Japanese positions in the issues of the East and South China seas,” he wass quoted by Kyodo as saying.

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Obama’s final legacy

Obama arrived in Vientiane late on Monday for the first visit by a sitting US president to Laos. In what is likely to be his last trip to Asia before his term ends in January, Obama will make a pitch for the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade pact signed by 12 member nations, and a core part of efforts to advance his policy of strategic “rebalance” to Asia, an initiative widely seen as a counter to the rise of China.

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North Korea’s nuclear development

As a response after North Korea fired three ballistic missiles into the sea off its east coast on Monday, Obama plans to meet South Korean President Park Geun-hye later on Tuesday. Obama is also likely to hold talks with Abe to discuss the issue.

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Li Keqiang’s rare diplomatic trip

Premier Li Keqiang will represent China to participate in the Asean summit. Li, who is in theory responsible for China’s economic policies and has been grappling with a slowing economy at home, has seldom made overseas trips over the last year. Instead, President Xi Jinping has dominated China’s show on the international stage . How Li will represent China as the country becomes increasingly assertive in the South China Sea will also be closely watched.

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