ASEAN leaders call for restraint amid sea row, US-China rift

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Southeast Asian leaders on Sunday pressed their call for self-restraint in the disputed South China Sea and renewed their alarm over the US-China trade war, with one leader warning it may spiral out of control.

The long-raging territorial conflicts and the protracted dispute between the two global economic powerhouses are high on the agenda in the final of two days of meetings of leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It’s an annual summit steeped in diplomacy, protocol and cultural color in the Thai capital.

Facing regional predicaments such as the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar, the leaders took the stage and clasped their hands together in a trademark ASEAN handshake to project unity.

Founded in 1967 in Bangkok in the Cold War era, the diverse 10-nation bloc lumps together an absolute monarchy and constitutional monarchies, along with socialist republics and fledgling democracies.

This year’s host, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, opened the summit with a call for regional unity and a push for the bloc to conclude a massive free trade pact with China and five other Asia-Pacific nations to cushion any impact from America’s trade conflicts with China.

“The winds of protectionism that are battering the multilateral system remind us that we must hang on ever stronger to one another,” Prayuth said.

The US, which has pursued bilateral deals over multination trade accords under President Donald Trump, is not included in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, which Prayuth said would encompass the world’s largest free-trade region.

Officials from Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam will be at the G-20 summit later this month in Japan, where Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to meet and express the region’s concerns.

“ASEAN hopes there will be discussions that lead to an easing and resolution of these problems because they affect many countries,” Prayuth said.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte told other leaders on Saturday that the trade conflict between Washington and Beijing “is creating uncertainty. It is taking a toll on global growth and it could hinder the ongoing processes of economic integration.”

“The US and China must both take the high road and resolve their differences before the situation spirals out of control,” the usually blunt Duterte said.

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