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Myanmar diplomatic debut tested by China

NAYPYIDAW/MANILA -- Surging tensions in the South China Sea dominated a meeting of Southeast Asia's regional bloc Saturday, presenting a challenging diplomatic debut for Myanmar as it hosts the talks for the first time.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers, gathering ahead of a leaders' summit on Sunday, “expressed serious concerns over the on-going developments” in the disputed waters, after recent confrontations pitting Vietnam and the Philippines against China.

The escalating row will be a delicate test for Myanmar, a longtime China ally that relied on its larger neighbor's political support and investment during long years in the diplomatic wilderness under junta rule.

Observers said Myanmar — at the helm of ASEAN for the first time in its 17-year membership — was steering a moderate course among member states, some of whom have loyalties torn by their closeness to Beijing.

“There are some disagreements but I think Myanmar is handling it very well as a neutral chair,” one diplomat said.

A new quasi-civilian regime that took power in 2011 has thrust the country into the international limelight, with reforms including freeing political prisoners and welcoming opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament.

The country should strive not to let its close relationship with China “mar its neutral and even-handed leadership,” said Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, adding that this would “not be easy.”

The ASEAN foreign ministers called on claimants to “resolve disputes by peaceful means without resorting to threat or use of force.”

Hanoi on Wednesday accused Chinese ships of attacking Vietnamese patrol vessels near a controversial oil rig that Beijing has moved into waters claimed by both countries.

On the same day, Philippine police said they had seized a Chinese fishing boat elsewhere in the sea, which is crisscrossed by strategically important shipping lanes and vast potential energy reserves.

China claims sovereign rights to almost all of the disputed waters.

Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said Saturday that it was imperative that ASEAN present a unified front, even if it did not take sides in the rows.

“Neutrality doesn't mean staying silent. We can't stay silent,” he told reporters, adding that the bloc's “credibility” had suffered in recent years over the issue.

In 2012, China's ally Cambodia caused consternation when it was ASEAN head by refusing to take Beijing to task over its assertive maritime stance.

'Political dignity'

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