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S China Sea disputes loom at ASEAN Summit

AAP logoAAP 5/09/2016 Lauren Farrow, AAP Southeast Asia Correspondent

Australia should seize a "window of opportunity" and support a push by the Association of South East Asian nations (ASEAN) for a code of conduct in the South China Sea during upcoming talks in Laos, an expert says.

After visiting Hangzhou, China for the G20 summit, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will head to Vientiane on Tuesday to join other world leaders, such as President Barack Obama for ASEAN talks in the country's capital where a number of issues, including maritime sovereignty, are expected to be discussed,

Mr Turnbull said on Monday he will be discussing how to deepen economic and security partnerships with ASEAN leaders, with the group of nations representing Australia's second-largest trading partner.

But while economics and security will be on the agenda, the issue of ongoing disputes in the South China Sea looms.

Australian National University defence and strategic expert Dr John Blaxland said ASEAN nations would likely welcome Australia and America's presence at the table in their continued push for a code of conduct (COC) - which has been discussed for more than a decade but remains elusive.

There was a "window of opportunity" to make headway on the issue, with China indicating it would like to have a COC by next year.

But China has been known to "procrastinate and obfuscate", Dr Blaxland added.

"Australia doesn't need to take a front seat we just need to back the position of those other countries."

A COC, he said, should include all vessels, not just naval ones - with Chinese paramilitary fishing vessels and coastguards often being at the centre of fishing disputes in the region.

When Mr Turnbull met with Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of the G20 he urged all parties to exercise restraint in the South China Sea while America has also indicated it wants to co-ordinate with ASEAN leaders on lowering tensions over the waters.

Meanwhile, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has said he wants to talk to China in bilateral meetings at ASEAN about reports of China's further construction activities in Scarborough Shoal - despite a recent court ruling rejecting its claims over large swathes of the waters.

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