State Counsellor off for four-day ASEAN Summit in Singapore

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Prior to attending the 33rd summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced on Tuesday that China is hoping to complete negotiations on a code of conduct for the South China Sea region in three years.

China insists that only the United States objects to its colonization of others' sovereign territory in the region and that "and the ASEAN countries have come to a consensus on the South China Sea issue".

India's concerns over opening its markets to competition, in particular from Chinese firms, has been a key obstacle in the several years of negotiations.

But the timetable has slipped, with sticking points over free access to markets remaining - and a raft of general elections early next year likely to further hamper its progress.

ASEAN needs to continuously expand its market by engaging in Free-Trade Agreements such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), but it must also be steadfast not to resort to unfair deals or pacts that give dominance to anyone.

Working towards the full liberalisation of the ASEAN-China Air Transport Agreement, mobilising private capital and using worldwide financial institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Asian Development Bank to close ASEAN's infrastructure financing gap will also help, Mr Lee said.

While talks on the ASEAN-centered trade accord stumble along, the 11 countries that have remained in the Trans-Pacific Partnership are preparing to inaugurate their revised trade deal.

Several general elections scheduled early next year - including in India, Thailand and Indonesia - have complicated the timeframe of a deal that will open markets in countries covering almost half the world's GDP.

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Asia-Pacific leaders will join the heads of Southeast Asian states this week in Singapore to renew calls for multilateralism and fresh pledges to resolve regional conflicts ranging from the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar to tensions in the South China Sea.

This is the second time this year that Duterte skipped an official ASEAN summit with Australia.

A draft leaders' statement on the RCEP seen by AFP noted the urgency of reaching an agreement "given the current headwinds faced by the global economy".

However, the Beijing-backed pact is much less ambitious than the TPP in areas such as employment and environmental protection.

"We must therefore work towards the swift conclusion of RCEP negotiations", the President said in his intervention during a working dinner with Asean leaders on Tuesday night.

U.S. President Donald Trump's "America First" foreign policy and his resistance to multilateral agreements and institutions are viewed as an affront and a challenge in a region whose modern economies are largely driven by global trade.

Bolton has warned repeatedly that China's growing presence in the South China Sea, particularly when forcing Vietnamese and Philippine ships out of their own domestic waters, presents a dire geopolitical threat.

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