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story.lead_photo.caption Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha

BANGKOK -- Southeast Asian leaders on Sunday pressed their call for self-restraint in the disputed South China Sea and renewed their alarm over the U.S.-China trade war.

Leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations also took the stage and clasped their hands together in a projection of unity in a time of regional predicaments such as the Rohingya refugee crisis in Burma.

Founded in Bangkok in 1967 during the midst of the Cold War, 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 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 U.S., which has pursued bilateral deals instead of multinational trade accords under President Donald Trump, is not included in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, 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. Those officials intend to 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, using the acronym for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

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 U.S. and China must both take the high road and resolve their differences before the situation spirals out of control," Duterte said.

In their public communiques, the leaders have avoided naming the U.S. and China or specific nations embroiled in controversial issues in a show of their conservative protocols. The leaders, however, could raise thorny issues in a closed-door and informal session.

Duterte has said he would raise the territorial conflicts in the South China Sea following the June 9 ramming of an anchored Philippine boat by a larger Chinese fishing vessel in the disputed Reed Bank. The incident sparked an outcry and condemnations in the Philippines after the Chinese crew sailed away while the fishing boat sank at night. Its Filipino crew was rescued by a Vietnamese vessel.

Known for his close ties with China, Duterte has backed Beijing's initial assertion that the collision was accidental. He mocked calls for him to immediately take drastic actions and agreed to a joint investigation with China, which critics have opposed.

In a statement outlining their regional policies, the leaders on Sunday renewed their call for countries involved in the territorial spats to "exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation, and pursue the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law."

China, Taiwan and four states in the association -- the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei -- are locked in disputes over the strategic waterway. The 10-nation bloc has been in talks with China to negotiate a nonaggression pact called the "code of conduct" to prevent major armed clashes in the offshore region, which has long been regarded as a potential Asian flashpoint.

Stepping back from the heavy issues, Prayuth told a news conference after the summit that the association's leaders backed the desire of the region to submit a joint bid to host the FIFA World Cup in 2034.

Information for this article was contributed by Jerry Harmer, Tassanee Vejpongsa and Gemunu Amarasinghe of The Associated Press.

A Section on 06/24/2019

Print Headline: Bloc urges caution in South China Sea caution

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