SINGAPORE (AP) -- Southeast Asia's top diplomats opened an annual meeting Thursday to tackle a slew of security concerns, including South China Sea territorial disputes, with host Singapore calling on the bloc to brace for external tumult such as rising protectionism.
North Korea's rapprochement with South Korea and the U.S. is expected to be welcomed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ministers, who began four days of meetings in Singapore with a working dinner Wednesday. Rising extremism and the plight of minority Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar's Rakhine state are also under the spotlight.
Founded in 1967 during the Cold War, ASEAN steadily weathered storms to become a stable 10-nation bloc, which now draws Asian and world powers in annual gatherings and is forecast to become the fourth-largest economy in the world in three decades.
New challenges, however, include escalating trade tensions between the United States and other global powerhouses like China and the European Union, and require ASEAN to stay united "to remain relevant," Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the start of the meetings.
"We can all see the growing political uncertainties," Lee said. "At the same time, each ASEAN member state is subject to different pulls and pressures from bigger powers."
Lee said it was important that ASEAN continues to support the multilateral system with like-minded partners, citing the bloc's efforts to conclude a wider free-trade pact with six Asia-Pacific nations by the end of the year.
That new accord, called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, includes China but not the U.S., and is regarded by some as an alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact, from which President Donald Trump formally withdrew last year.
Currently led by Singapore, ASEAN will host on Saturday Asia's largest security forum, including the key players involved in the Korean Peninsula's disarmament efforts, which will provide a chance for them to talk on the sidelines of the meeting.
In the South China Sea disputes, which have pitted China, Taiwan and four ASEAN claimants -- Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam -- the group is expected to announce an agreement with Beijing on an initial negotiating draft of the so-called "code of conduct," a proposed set of regional norms and rules aimed at preventing the long-seething disputes from degenerating into a shooting war.
The ministers will welcome "the improving cooperation between ASEAN and China and were encouraged by the progress of the substantive negotiations towards the early conclusion of an effective code of conduct in the South China Sea on a mutually agreed timeline," according to a draft of a joint communique by the ministers, obtained by The Associated Press.
Some of the ministers are expected to repeat their concerns over China's transformation of seven disputed reefs into islands, including three with runways, which now resemble small cities armed with weapons systems, including surface-to-air missiles. China has come under intense criticism for the militarization of the strategic waterway, but has said it has the right to build on its territory and defend them at all costs.
The ministers "took note of the concerns expressed by some countries on the land reclamations in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region," the draft communique said, without naming China and reflecting the internal divisions over the touchy issue.
ASEAN members Cambodia and Laos, which are known China allies, have opposed the use of strong language against Beijing over the disputes. Vietnam and Indonesia have backed stronger rhetoric against China's assertive actions.
"There will be the inevitable differences, if not tensions, within ASEAN on what should be in the document. You have claimant and non-claimant states. You have countries with very close ties with China and those more cautious of China," said Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University.
"A meeting of minds is essential to set the stage for the arduous road ahead," Tan said.