KUALA LUMPUR — It was a meeting to mark the 25th anniversary of relations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China, held in the the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, in a region known for historically close trading links with the Southeast Asian countries to the south, including Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Surprisingly, given the location and the commemoration, ASEAN member state Malaysia issued a statement on behalf of the bloc criticizing China over its territorial claims in the contested South China Sea. The statement noted that recent developments in the disputed sea — where China has been building artificial islands and constructing what it calls “defensive facilities” while the U.S., an ally of the Philippines, has been conducting naval patrols and reconnaissance flights in the name of freedom of navigation — had raised concerns about a spillover clash with China. Those fears, the statement added, had “the potential to undermine peace”. “We stressed the importance of maintaining peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea,” the ASEAN foreign ministers said. But in an about-turn more startling than the earlier statement, Malaysia, which chaired the bloc in 2015 before passing the leadership to Laos, a Communist-ruled country with close ties to China, led the way in issuing a sudden retraction, saying there were “urgent amendments to be made.”
BANDAR SERI BAGAWAN — The pre-summit chat was all about the absence of Barack Obama, but when pressed, Asian governments were quick to suggest that they had bigger concerns than the embattled American President’s no-show, with an October 17 deadline for the U.S. to raise its ‘debt ceiling’ hanging over the various summit meetings held in the Brunei capital earlier this week. American lawmakers have yet to cut a deal to raise Washington’s mammoth $16.7 trillion borrowing limit, the ‘debt ceiling, ‘which is set to expire on October 17. The stand-off forced the closure of much of the U.S. government and prompted President Obama to cancel his planned visits to Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. And while the government shutdown has prompted worldwide bemusement, the looming debt crisis has left Asia’s emerging economies nervous about the unheralded knock-on effects that could come about – if the U.S. ends up defaulting on its debt. Around 60% of China’s foreign currency reserves are thought to be American assets, so Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s words to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry – that “China is highly concerned with the United States’ debt ceiling issue,” according to a report in by the state-run China News Service – are no surprise.