BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei – Worried that long-seething rifts could escalate over the South China Sea, Southeast Asian leaders are expected this week to press China to agree to start negotiations on a new pact aimed at thwarting a major clash in one of the world's busiest waterways.
Concern over North Korea's latest threats is also expected to gain attention over economic issues in the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, being held Wednesday and Thursday in Brunei's capital of Bandar Seri Begawan.
The 10-nation bloc is scrambling to beat a deadline to transform the strikingly diverse region of 600 million people into a European Union-like community by the end of 2015.
A draft statement to be issued after the summit, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press on Monday, would reaffirm the ASEAN leaders' commitment to ensure the peaceful resolution of South China Sea conflicts in accordance with international law "without resorting to the threat or use of force."
They would call for "the early adoption of a code of conduct in the South China Sea," referring to a legally binding pact ASEAN would like to forge with China to replace a 2002 nonaggression accord that has failed to stop territorial skirmishes.
China, Taiwan and ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have overlapping claims across the South China Sea, which Beijing claims in its entirety. The Philippines and Vietnam in particular have been at odds with China over the region in recent years, with diplomatic squabbles erupting over oil and gas exploration and fishing rights.
A tense standoff last year between Chinese and Filipino ships over the fishing-rich Scarborough Shoal is unresolved.
The Philippine vessels withdrew, but China has refused to pull out its three surveillance ships and remove a rope blocking Filipino fishermen from a Scarborough lagoon.
In January, the Philippines challenged China's massive territorial claims before an arbitration tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in a daring legal step that China has ignored. The tribunal has to appoint three more of five arbiters by Thursday, then start looking into the complaint if it decides it has jurisdiction.
A pre-summit meeting by ASEAN foreign ministers in Brunei two weeks ago was dominated by concerns over the territorial disputes and ended with a call for an early conclusion of a nonaggression pact with China, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said.
But Chinese officials have not clearly indicated when they would be ready to discuss the proposed accord.
The territorial issue has threatened ASEAN's unity. Cambodia, a China ally, refused to have the issue mentioned in a post-ministerial statement when it hosted the meetings last year. That drew protests from Vietnam and the Philippines, and ASEAN ended up not issuing an after-conference communique for the first time in the bloc's 45-year history.
China has steadfastly refused to bring the disputes to the international arena, preferring to negotiate one on one with each rival claimant. It has also warned Washington not to intervene in the disputes.
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.
Brunei's publicity-shy leader, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, has led the tedious legwork to avoid any major hitch in the ASEAN summits his tiny but oil-rich kingdom hosts this year.
He has separately met with President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping ahead of this week's summit. Last week, Bolkiah flew to Manila, partly to discuss the summit agenda with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III.
When his gleaming Royal Brunei Air plane taxied to a red-carpet welcome at Manila's airport, Philippine officials saw Bolkiah, who also heads his country's defense forces, at the pilot's seat.