S. China Sea focus of attention at Asean meet

Regional bloc says it welcomes constructive US efforts towards peace in contested area

HANOI • Developments in the South China Sea took centre stage at a meeting of representatives of Asean yesterday, with Vietnam saying South-east Asian countries want the United States to play a role in maintaining peace in the contested area.

"We welcome the US' constructive and responsive contributions to Asean's efforts to maintaining the peace, stability and developments in the South China Sea," Vietnam Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said at the virtual meeting between the 10 Asean members and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Vietnam, which holds the regional bloc's rotating chairmanship, said South-east Asian countries were open to opportunities for practical cooperation with the US in the region, pushing back against China's earlier comments that American forces were destabilising the region.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia have been locked in territorial disputes with China that have impacted their ability to extract fish, oil and gas from offshore areas. China claims the majority of the South China Sea, invoking its so-called nine-dash line to justify what it says are historic rights to the key trade waterway.

At a virtual meeting a day earlier, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told South-east Asian foreign ministers that the US was intervening in territorial disputes and strengthening its military deployment in the contested area "out of its own political purposes".

He called the US "the biggest driver of militarisation of the South China Sea", according to statements posted by China's Foreign Ministry. "Peace and stability are China's greatest strategic interest in the South China Sea, which are also the common aspiration of Asean countries," he said.

Meanwhile, Mr Pompeo yesterday urged South-east Asia to cut ties with Chinese companies helping to build islands in the South China Sea, weeks after the US blacklisted two dozen firms working in the resource-rich waterway.

Mr Pompeo said it was time for South-east Asian governments to reconsider their own relationship with firms working in the sea.

"Don't just speak up, but act," he told the 10 Asean foreign ministers during the meeting.

"Reconsider business dealings with the very state-owned companies that bully Asean coastal states in the South China Sea... Don't let the Chinese Communist Party walk over us and our people."

However, the Philippines had already said last week that it would not follow the US lead because it needed Chinese investment, even as a fresh dispute between the two nations over Scarborough Shoal - one of the region's richest fishing grounds - hangs over the talks.

In a joint statement released late yesterday, Asean member states said progress had been made in negotiations to draft a code of conduct in the South China Sea that was consistent with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which China is a signatory.

"Concerns were expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations, activities and serious incidents in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions, and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region," the statement said.

Tensions in the South China Sea have risen in the past few months as the US and China spar on everything from democracy in Hong Kong to data security over popular Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat.

In July, Washington explicitly rejected Beijing's expansive maritime claims in the region for the first time, and sent aircraft carriers to the waters to conduct military exercises.

China last month fired missiles into the South China Sea, displaying its ability to strike at US bases and aircraft carriers, the major sources of American power projection in the region.

While the Asean meetings this week appeared to be overshadowed by US-China rivalry, the member states also had fruitful dialogue with other nations.

Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in a Facebook post yesterday that substantive conversations were had with the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand about continuing cooperation in the areas of public health, sustainable development, trade, innovation and digitalisation amid the Covid-19 pandemic.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2020, with the headline S. China Sea focus of attention at Asean meet. Subscribe