Rivalry between China and the United States is dominating proceedings at the annual meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), which meets in the Laotian capital Vientiane on Tuesday and Wednesday, even if the two two global players that are not even members of the organisaiton, which groups all south-east Asian countries, except East Timor and Papua New Guinea.
“To keep the peace and deter aggression, we've deployed more of our most advanced military capabilities to the region, including ships and aircraft to Singapore,” said US President Barack Obama who was attending the summit as a visitor.
By the end of the decade a majority of US navy and air force fleets will be based in the Pacific, he said, adding that "our partners and allies are collaborating more with each other as well. So our alliances and defense capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region are as strong as they have ever been.”
The local superpower, China, is not happy with Washington’s military ambitions in the regions, and is trying to secure its own maritime borders by constructing military structures and airfields on uninhabited rocks some 700 kilometres south of its southernmost landborder.
Some of these claims were rejected recently by a court in The Hague in favor of the Philippines last month.
“The Chinese government simply does not accept the ruling and therefore they will not really be changing the way they are dealing with it,” says Steve Tsang, director of China Studies at the University of Nottingham.
“It is quite possible that they will continue with some more island building in some of the disputed rocks. So that is not going to change."
The rest of the world finds the Chinese government's position problematic, he says. "That will make things much more complicated terms of how they are going to engage each other but it will give the Philippines an opportunity to take a slightly softer approach to China and negotiate on a more reasonable basis.”
When Asean was created in 1967, it was, among other things, to form a buffer against what was perceived as the threat of communism, with North Vietnam, Laos and mainland China all ruled by communist parties.
But not much is left of these old ideas. Two of the more recent Asean members are Vietnam and Laos.
“In fact its politics have been non-interference into each other’s affairs, consensus and a kind of protectionism of their own group,” says Penelope Faulkner, vice-director of theVietnam Committee for Human Rights.
"And the fact that Vietnam is a communist country which violates human rights and which has been singled out by the international community is something that when you talk about that in Asean, then Asean says: 'You are interfering into another countries internal affairs'."
Meanwhile, the issue of the South China Sea seems to split the organisation.
“Within Asean there are countries which are more supportive to China, there are countries which are beginning to be more aligned with Washington and the US and this is very obvious with the issue of the South China Sea in which several members of Asean have claims [as well as] China,” says Faulkner.
Allies of China include Myanmar, where, in spite of the democratic reforms, the military, which supports Beijing, still holds the key to power.
So, as in previous years, this year's Asean meeting is expected to try to stay away from politics and focus on trade, investment and development.