Vietnam backs US role in South China Sea, rebuffing Beijing at Asean meeting

Mr Pham Binh Minh at the 21st Asean Plus Three Foreign Ministers' Meeting, on Sept 9, 2020. Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia have been locked in territorial disputes with China. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HANOI (BLOOMBERG) - South-east Asian countries want the United States to play a role in maintaining peace in the South China Sea, Vietnam said, pushing back against Beijing's comments that American forces were destabilising the region.

"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 on Thursday (Sept 10) during a virtual meeting between representatives from the 10-member Asean and US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.

Vietnam holds the bloc's rotating chairmanship.

South-east Asian countries were open to opportunities for practical cooperation with the US in the region, Mr Minh said.

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.

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.

The US has become "the most dangerous factor that damages the peace in the South China Sea", Mr Wang said, reiterating China's position that disputes should be solved by regional countries.

"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.

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, the US explicitly rejected China'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, a move that underscored the growing cost of any armed conflict in the region.

The missiles showed China's ability to strike out at US bases and aircraft carriers, the major sources of American power projection in the region.

At a separate meeting on Wednesday, Mr Pompeo joined several Asean countries in raising concerns over the China's actions in the South China Sea, according to a State Department statement.

He reiterated that the US regarded Beijing's expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea as unlawful according to a 2016 international tribunal ruling that China regards as illegitimate because it opted out of dispute settlement provisions when it signed up for United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

"We express serious concern over ongoing developments on the ground including serious incidents, continued militarisation and activities that infringe on the lawful rights of small countries, run counter to international law," Mr Minh, the Vietnamese minister, said, citing the 1982 UN Convention for the Law of the Sea.

"These have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and undermined peace, security and rule of law in the region."

On Wednesday, Mr Wang rejected the idea that China claims all waters within the nine-dash line as its territorial sea, calling it a "distortion" of China's stance.

He insisted China's claim of islands in the South China Sea has "abundant historic and legal basis".

He also argued that Chinese construction on reefs and islets was meant to improve living conditions and provide "public good" for the region.

"In the face of a non-regional country's military pressure, of course we have the right to protect our own sovereignty," he said.

The US said it also joined several countries in raising concerns over the imposition of sweeping national security legislation on Hong Kong, the arrests of pro-democracy students, the year-long postponement of elections and disqualification of pro-democracy electoral candidates.

In response, Mr Wang said the East Asia Summit had "never been a venue for interfering into other countries' internal affairs, and should not become a stage to attack other countries' political system".

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.