ASEAN defense ministers to meet as South China Sea tensions rise


SINGAPORE — Defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will meet online on Tuesday to discuss regional security, with South China Sea tensions and recent Chinese moves expected to be high on the agenda.

The 10-member bloc will also hold an expanded meeting the next day with counterparts from eight key countries, including China, the U.S., Japan and India. Amid frosty ties between Beijing and Washington, the event marks an opportunity for the two powers and other players to discuss geopolitical issues.

Brunei, this year’s ASEAN chair, released a brief statement on its Defense Ministry’s website, saying it would host the virtual sessions over two days. It did not detail the topics up for discussion nor name the representatives for each country.

But Tuesday’s talks are likely to include a planned Code of Conduct for managing disputes in the South China Sea, where China has overlapping claims with several Southeast Asian countries.

In a foreign ministers meeting last week, ASEAN and China agreed to expedite the resumption of negotiations on the code, halted by the pandemic.

The South China Sea has been a key subject at past ASEAN defense ministers meetings as well. At the previous one in December, the 10 countries issued a statement stressing the importance of promoting “maritime security, safety and freedom of navigation and overflight, and creating a conducive environment for peaceful settlement of disputes in the South China Sea.”