BANGKOK - Big power rivalry has turned the waters choppy but Asean plans to navigate them on its own terms, stressed Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Thursday (Aug 1).
"We can protect our interests by being united and by signalling to all superpowers and rising powers around us that we want, to the maximum extent possible, to do so on our terms," Dr Balakrishnan told reporters on a day when Asean foreign ministers met chief diplomats from the bloc's dialogue partners like the United States, European Union, Japan and India for talks.
While its 10 members have their own differences, Asean is united on the principles of peace, openness, inclusion and free trade.
"We are entitled to take that view even if from time to time… it doesn't completely coincide with the stated interests of one or the other superpower," he said.
"We are making good progress on the Asean perspective."
Dr Balakrishnan struck this optimistic note even as the US and China - locked in a bitter trade war that has taken geostrategic dimensions - used this annual platform to trade barbs at each other.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meeting Asean foreign ministers on Thursday at the Asean-US Ministerial Meeting, as well as a subset of ministers from Mekong riparian countries, criticised China for its coercion in the South China Sea and then alleged that the currently critically low levels of water in the Mekong were "linked to China's decision to shut off water upstream".
On Wednesday, as Asean foreign ministers released their annual joint communique welcoming the progress made on crafting a code of conduct in the contested South China Sea, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned parties outside the region against amplifying disputes between rival claimants.
In a thinly veiled reference to the US, Mr Wang also warned against sowing distrust between Asean and China.
The two men struck a more conciliatory tone when they spoke briefly on Thursday, with Mr Pompeo telling reporters later that he shared "a very professional discussion" with his Chinese counterpart. Mr Wang described the meeting as "deep communication".
Asean, wary of being caught in the increasingly tense rivalry between the two powers , drafted its own vision of the Indo-Pacific region in June, stressing inclusive cooperation.
Mr Pompeo stressed he was not asking Asean to take sides. "Our engagement in this region has not been and will not be a zero-sum exercise," he told the Asean foreign ministers.
Meanwhile, little progress was made on another simmering dispute between South Korea and Japan - both dialogue partners of Asean - despite a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the main Asean programme.
Both important security partners of the US amid North Korean belligerence, Seoul and Tokyo have been at odds over the past few months on the issue of wartime forced labour and trade restrictions on critical material used to make semiconductors.
A meeting between South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and her Japanese counterpart Taro Kono on Thursday failed to ease tensions, with Dr Kang even suggesting that the security arrangements they share may be reviewed if relations worsened.
The two ministers are due to sit down with Mr Pompeo on Friday for a three-way discussion. Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Mr Pompeo said: "We hope they will find a way to move forward together."