PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte, representing the chair this year of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), yesterday set the stage for the bloc’s 31st summit by putting security threats front and center in remarks at the opening ceremony.

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Recalling the costly siege of Marawi City by Islamic State-inspired militants, Mr. Duterte said: “I apologize for setting the tone of my statement in such a manner.”

“…[T]errorism and violent extremism endanger the peace, stability and security of our region because these threats know no boundaries,” he said.

“Piracy and armed robbery… put a dent on our growth and disrupt the stability of both regional and global commerce,” he added.

“The menace of illegal drug trade continues to endanger the very fabric of our societies.”

At the same time, he said, to be signed today is a “landmark” ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers designed to strengthen regional cooperation on preventing abuses, exploitation and violence towards migrant workers, whose remittances are an anchor of the Philippine economy.

But while Mr. Duterte tried to keep the South China Sea maritime dispute off the menu for talks at the summit plenary — saying in a speech last Sunday that “the South China Sea is better left untouched” — Presidential Spokesperson Harry L. Roque, Jr. said in a press briefing yesterday that “at least two to three” ASEAN leaders raised the matter.

A draft of a statement to be released after ASEAN-China talks, which Reuters obtained, showed that Southeast Asia will not take a relative calm in the dispute over the South China Sea for granted.

“While the situation is calmer now, we cannot take the current progress for granted,” the draft read. “Important that we cooperate to maintain peace, stability, freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the SCS (South China Sea), in accordance with international law. It is in our collective interest to avoid miscalculations that could lead to escalation of tensions.”

It will be recalled that the ASEAN leaders’ statement at the end of their 30th summit last April had struck out at the last minute a draft’s mention of “land reclamation and militarization that may further complicate the situation…” in a clear reference to China’s building of an artificial isle and installation of weapons systems, as well as runways and other facilities a little more than 200 kilometers west of Palawan that could accommodate military aircraft.

At the same time, that final statement then retained a reference to division among ASEAN leaders on how to deal with Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. “We took note of concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments in the area,” it had read.

Almost all of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways, is claimed by China. Taiwan and four ASEAN nations — Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei — have competing claims.

Moreover, a draft of the statement to be issued after the summit makes no mention of the exodus of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s Rakhine state following a military crackdown that has been described by the United Nations as ethnic cleansing.

One paragraph of the communique, seen by Reuters on Monday, mentions the importance of humanitarian relief provided for victims of natural disasters in Vietnam and a recent urban battle with Islamist militants in the Philippines, as well as “affected communities” in northern Rakhine state.

The statement was drawn up by the Philippines.

The draft did not give any details of the situation in northern Rakhine or use the term Rohingya for the persecuted Muslim minority, which Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has asked foreign leaders to avoid.

The government in mostly Buddhist Myanmar regards the Rohingya as illegal migrants from Bangladesh and does not recognize the term.

Well over 600,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh to find shelter in refugee camps after military clearance operations were launched in response to attacks by Rohingya militants on security posts on Aug. 25.

The plight of the Rohingya has brought outrage from around the world and there have been calls for democracy champion Ms. Suu Kyi to be stripped of the Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991 because she has not condemned the Myanmar military’s actions.

In September, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the situation in Rakhine was best described as ethnic cleansing.

Some members of ASEAN, particularly Muslim-majority Malaysia, have voiced concern. However, in keeping with ASEAN’s principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of one another, the issue appears to have been put aside at the summit.

In September, Malaysia disavowed a statement issued by the Philippines on behalf of ASEAN’s foreign ministers as misrepresenting “the reality” because it did not identify the Rohingya as an affected community in Rakhine state. — with Reuters reports