Southeast Asian leaders start their summit amid “nice energy rivalries”.

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© Reuters. ASEAN summit in Hanoi

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By James Pearson

HANOI (Reuters) – Southeast Asian leaders on Thursday opened a multilateral summit to address tensions in the South China Sea and address plans for post-pandemic recovery in a region where rivalry between the US and the United States is in progress China has increased.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has not yet been drawn into the maelstrom of these rivalries and challenges for the international multilateral system, said the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in his opening speeches at the 37th ASEAN summit in Hanoi.

“Three quarters of a century have passed since the end of World War II. However, world peace and security are still not really sustainable,” said Phuc, whose government chairs the 10-member bloc.

“They are particularly at risk this year as the risks worsen due to unpredictable behavior by states, major power rivalries and friction,” Phuc said at the virtual summit, which includes meetings between ASEAN and China, India and Japan, South Korea, Australia and the United States.

At the top of the summit’s agenda are tensions in the South China Sea, where Chinese ships are periodically embroiled in ships from Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia as Beijing seeks to assert its territorial claims on the controversial waterway.

China claims about 80% of the sea, including large parts of Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as well as the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands. It also overlaps with the EEZs of ASEAN members Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Since mid-August, the United States has repeatedly angered China by sending warships to the South China Sea and blacklisting 24 Chinese units for their involvement in the construction and militarization of artificial islands.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang promised that Beijing “will continue to work with ASEAN countries on the path of peaceful development to ensure peace and stability in the region.”

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte described the coronavirus pandemic as “the crucial challenge facing our generation” and urged countries “to work together to ensure that all nations, poor or rich, have access to safe vaccines”.

ASEAN leaders are also expected to sign the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) on Sunday under what may be the world’s largest trade deal.

The deal, which comes at a time when tensions over US election results are raising questions about Washington’s involvement in the region, is likely to cement and better place China’s position as economic partners with Southeast Asia, Japan and Korea To shape trade rules in the region.

(Additional reporting by Phuong Nguyen and Neil Jerome Morales in MANILA; Editing by Ed Davies)

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