By Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panu Wongcha-um
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Southeast Asian nations made good progress on a Code of Conduct negotiating draft for the disputed South China Sea and likely will finish a first reading by the end of this year, the Thai foreign ministry said as regional leaders met in Bangkok.
China says it owns most of the waterway - a claim that other states dispute - and has been aggressively building and militarising artificial islands as well as confronting ships that enter the zone, actions that give urgency to ASEAN's efforts negotiate on the area.
Formed more than 50 years ago, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has historically struggled with challenges facing the region because it works only by consensus and is reluctant to become involved in any matter regarded as internal to a member state.
ASEAN's foreign ministers met on Saturday to discuss disputes in the terms of the Code of Conduct for the waterway, foreign ministry spokeswoman Busadee Santipitaks said on Saturday.
"The single draft ...negotiating text is currently being discussed and negotiated between ASEAN and China," she told Reuters. "(We) expect the first reading of this draft to finish by this year."
The claims on the Sea - one of the world's busiest waterways - asserted by ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia as well as China and Taiwan make it a potential flashpoint.
Busadee's comment came amid doubts over what progress the 10-country group could make on the matter.
"It is encouraging to see that the ASEAN-China talks on the COC have continued," said Marty Natalegawa, former foreign minister of Indonesia.
"However, there is real risk that developments on the ground - or more precisely at sea - are far outpacing the COC's progress thereby possibly rendering it irrelevant."
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has accepted China's proposal to jointly investigate allegations that a Chinese fishing vessel abandoned 22 Filipinos after it sank their boat in the South China Sea, his spokesman said on Saturday.
Kantathi Suphamongkhon, a former Thai foreign minister, said the COC must also be legally binding, or it risks making no difference.
PLIGHT OF THE ROHINGYA
ASEAN leaders also face calls from rights groups to rethink support for plans to repatriate Rohingya Muslims who have fled member state Myanmar, where activists say returnees could face discrimination and persecution.
More than 700,000 Rohingya crossed into Bangladesh in 2017, according to U.N. agencies, after a crackdown by Myanmar's military sparked by Rohingya insurgent attacks on security forces.
Regarding the repatriation, Busadee told reporters: "The necessary steps will need to be made, but there is at least a period of collaboration, and wanting to move on to the next steps is important in this process."
It is unlikely that there will be any criticism of Myanmar at the summit over the Rohingya, said Prapat Thepchatree, a political science professor at Thailand's Thammasat University said.
"This issue has been a very sensitive one for ASEAN," he said.
In late afternoon, the ASEAN leaders will likely adopt the Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris in the region together with a framework of action on the issue, Busadee said.
The declaration was commended by environmentalists as a good first step for the region, whose member countries are among the world's worst ocean polluters, though doubts remained over implementation.
(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panu Wongcha-um; Additional reporting by Kay Johnson and Panarat Thepgumpanat; editing by John Stonestreet)