Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (front C) Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein (L), Philippines President Benigno Aquino (2nd L) and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (R) sit during a meeting of the 20th Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Phnom Penh on April 3, 2012. (Tang Chhin Sothy / AFP)
PHNOM PENH, April 4, 2012 (AFP) - Southeast Asian leaders are expected Wednesday to issue a formal call for the West to ease sanctions on Myanmar, at the end of a summit which has also been dominated by tensions with China.
Leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations will also express concern about a planned rocket launch by nuclear-armed North Korea, according to ASEAN general-secretary Surin Pitsuwan.
The two-day annual talks in the Cambodian capital have focused on historic by-elections in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, which gave pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi a seat in parliament for the first time.
Senior officials said the leaders on Tuesday praised Myanmar's unfolding reforms, which have seen the military loosen its grip on power and allow Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner, to participate in politics.
Myanmar President Thein Sein addressed the leaders during a closed session to say the polls were free and fair and he accepted the result. He later told reporters the elections were "held successfully".
Surin told AFP late Tuesday he expected the leaders to issue a formal statement on Wednesday "calling for immediate lifting of the sanctions", imposed in the 1990s over the Myanmar military's human rights abuses.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino told reporters: "We have to show the people who are reforming in Myanmar that the road they chose is the right road. There has to be a reward."
Asked if sanctions should be lifted, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said: "Absolutely, yes. If not now, when?"
Tensions with China over disputed islands in the potentially resource-rich South China Sea -- a strategic international shipping lane -- have been the most difficult issue for Southeast Asian leaders, diplomats said.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said there was a "big disagreement" on Tuesday over whether to invite China to help draft a code of conduct, designed to prevent small incidents in the sea from escalating.
Cambodia, which holds the ASEAN chair in 2012, is eager to bring China into the drafting process but the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam say the bloc's members should draft a code among themselves before presenting it to Beijing.
"We have to come up with a conclusion in ASEAN first before we can talk to China," Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul told reporters Wednesday.
Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Cambodia on the eve of the summit in what many analysts took to be a form of pressure on Phnom Penh to use its chairmanship to slow down the South China Sea negotiations.
Cambodian officials deny they are under any pressure from Beijing, but Prime Minister Hun Sen left the maritime disputes and the proposed code of conduct -- first mooted 10 years ago -- off his list of ASEAN priorities for 2012.
China has competing territorial claims in the sea with ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The United States says it has a "national interest" in keeping the vital trade route open to shipping.
ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam -- a grouping of nearly 600 million people from disparate economic and political systems.
The bloc has often been dismissed as a talking shop but it has assumed new strategic importance in light of Washington's foreign policy "pivot" to Asia and the economic rise of China in recent years.
North Korea's plans to launch a rocket in mid-April have also loomed over the Cambodia summit, diplomats said.
Surin said the summit's final communique would "express a high level of concern" about the launch, which the United States and its allies say is a thinly disguised missile test.