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ASEAN leaders voice concern about Rohingya crisis, South China Sea

Performers take part in the opening ceremony of the 35th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit at IMPACT Muang Thong Thani in Nonthaburi province, Thailand, on Nov. 3, 2019. (NurPhoto/Getty/Kyodo)

BANGKOK (Kyodo) -- Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations reiterated their willingness to see the bloc play a prominent role in helping Myanmar with the safe return of Rohingya refugees who fled the country, according to a statement issued Sunday.

In the chairman's statement released after their weekend summit in Bangkok, the leaders said they were updated on the latest situation from Myanmar while welcoming the progress of needs assessment teams.

More than 740,000 members of the minority group fled from Myanmar's Rakhine State to neighboring Bangladesh since August 2017 to escape a military crackdown on insurgents.

Following the ASEAN-U.N. summit in the afternoon, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he expressed concern over the situation in the refugee camps, adding the world body will keep supporting the current mechanism and the engagement between ASEAN and Myanmar.

On the issue of the South China Sea, the statement said that the ASEAN leaders again voiced concern over land reclamation activities, while welcoming progress made in ongoing talks between ASEAN and China on a "Code of Conduct" to manage the territorial disputes.

ASEAN and China last year agreed on the text, which will form the basis of future COC negotiations. China claims rights to nearly the entire South China Sea and has erected artificial islands with military infrastructure in the waters.

According to ASEAN sources, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose country is a claimant in the South China Sea maritime territorial dispute, delivered a "strong" message at both Saturday's ASEAN Summit and Sunday's ASEAN-China Summit.

Philippines presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo told reporters that ASEAN members are still worried about activity in the maritime area that could deepen conflicts among the claimants.

"They (the leaders) are very concerned about what happens in the South China Sea, so they asked everyone to avoid any activity that lead to more conflict," he said.

China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea where ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam also have claims.

While China has proposed to the Philippines joint development of oil and gas resources in the South China Sea, tensions between Beijing and Hanoi recently escalated when China sent a survey ship in waters claimed by Vietnam.

On the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the ASEAN leaders welcomed the conclusion of text-based negotiations and the commitment by the 16 countries concerned to sign an agreement on creating the world's largest free trade area in 2020.

"This will significantly contribute to an open, inclusive and rules-based international trading system and expansion of value chains," said the chairman's document.

Thailand, which this year holds the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN, is hosting the 35th ASEAN summit and related summits as well as the East Asia Summit.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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