S. China Sea tension, N. Korea crisis and terrorism loom large

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Asean leaders, partners at summit call for greater resolve to tackle several issues

The threats of terrorism, the North Korea crisis and maritime tensions loomed large for leaders of Asean's 10 nations and key partners yesterday as they began a series of meetings and called for greater resolve to address these challenges.

Their host, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, set the tone in his opening remarks as he spoke of the five months-long battle with extremists who had seized the southern city of Marawi and sought to turn it into a province for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Fellow leaders, including Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, also called for greater collaboration to counter terrorism, saying it "remains a serious, acute and continuing threat for the region".

As ISIS loses ground in the Middle East, it is calling on supporters to conduct lone-wolf attacks, and South-east Asia will soon see an increased flow of returning fighters.

The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia are already holding joint maritime and air patrols in the Sulu Sea, but experts have said more needs to be done.

Mr Duterte also cited the problems of piracy and drug trafficking, saying: "Piracy and armed robbery in the seas put a dent on our growth and disrupt the stability of both regional and global commerce."

And he touched on the "menace of the illegal drugs trade".

The issue of North Korea's recent nuclear and missile tests was also raised, with Mr Lee reiterating the need to continue to call on Pyongyang to abide by international obligations.

Yesterday, Asean leaders met among themselves, before separate summits with United States President Donald Trump, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, South Korean President Moon Jae In and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

One key theme was the need for Asean members to stay united on key issues affecting the region. Mr Trump reiterated his commitment to ensuring "fair trade", as Asean leaders spoke of the importance of warm Asean-US ties.

Significantly, the leaders of Asean and China announced the start of talks on a South China Sea code of conduct and called for its early conclusion.

Also raised was the ongoing humanitarian crisis in which over 600,000 Rohingya have fled their homes in Myanmar's Rakhine state to Bangladesh.

Mr Duterte's spokesman Harry Roque said Myanmar welcomes offers of humanitarian assistance for displaced persons. Security issues will also be raised at the East Asia Summit today.