PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (2nd UPDATE) – The 21st summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) began Sunday, with pressing issues such as territorial disputes on the table for heads of state, including Philippine President Benigno Aquino III.
Aquino is expected to bring up the Philippines' position in maritime cooperation and security in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), human rights, and the protection of migrant workers, among others, in a series of meetings with fellow ASEAN leaders.
Malacanang said a retreat session that will tackle maritime security and cooperation will begin at around 3:45 p.m. (Manila time).
ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said the bloc was ready to present a united front to China over the issue, after proposing on Saturday a hotline with its giant Asian neighbor aimed at defusing tensions.
"There is a good intention to push the momentum forward," Surin told Agence Frane Presse in an interview on Sunday just ahead of the opening of the talks.
Rival claims to the South China Sea have for decades made the waterways, home to some of the world's most important shipping lanes and believed to sit atop vast natural resources, a potential military flashpoint.
China insists it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the sea, including waters close to the coasts of its Asian neighbors.
Meanwhile, Aquino will also take part in meetings with ASEAN's dialogue partners, including, among others: Russia, China, India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea.
In an interview with radio dzRB, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said Malacanang has not received reports that Aquino will meet with re-elected United States President Barack Obama.
On Sunday, however, Aquino is expected to hold bilateral meetings with the prime ministers of Vietnam and India, she said.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen led the opening ceremony at 10 a.m. on Sunday (Manila time) at the Peace Palace, where Southeast Asian heads of state also launched the ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation.
Throughout the day, ASEAN leaders will have other plenary and retreat sessions, as well as a meeting with the regional bloc’s Business Advisory Council.
The heads of state are also expected to approve the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, which international human rights groups have slammed for imposing limits on human rights.
President Aquino arrived here on Saturday night. His 53-member delegation includes Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Trade Secretary Gregory Domingo, Cabinet Secretary Jose Rene Almendras, Socio-Economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan, and Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. -- Reports from Ryan Chua, ABS-CBN News; and Agence France Presse