US stands with Asean claimants in S. China Sea issue, urges bloc to act on Myanmar: Blinken

Filipino protesters demonstrating outside the Chinese consular office in Manila on July 12, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON - The United States stands with South-east Asian claimants and rejects China's unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea, the State Department said on Tuesday (July 13) following Secretary of State Antony Blinken's first meeting with Asean foreign ministers.

The statement underscored the Joe Biden administration's stance on the South China Sea issue for the second time in as many days, following a statement on Sunday by Mr Blinken calling on Beijing to stop its "provocative behaviour" in the contested waters.

On Tuesday, Mr Blinken also expressed deep concerns about the military coup in Myanmar and called on Asean to urge the end of violence and restore the country's democratic transition, State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

Mr Blinken said that Asean's five-point consensus on Myanmar, which was drafted in April after a special meeting, was "an important step forward".

The consensus calls for an immediate end to the violence in Myanmar, a dialogue among all parties to seek a peaceful solution, a special envoy to mediate the dialogue, humanitarian aid through an Asean organisation, and a visit to Myanmar by the Asean special envoy to meet all parties.

Asean has been criticised for not doing enough to address Myanmar's political crisis since the military seized power from the civilian government in a coup in February.

At Tuesday's meeting, Mr Blinken "urged Asean to take immediate action to hold the Burmese regime accountable to the consensus and to appoint a special envoy", using the old term that refers to Myanmar.

He also called for the release of all those who were "unjustly detained".

Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who had participated in the Special Asean-US Foreign Ministers' Meeting via videoconference on Wednesday (July 14), reiterated Singapore's full support for the Five-Point Consensus.

Constructive engagement will go further in facilitating a return to normalcy in Myanmar, Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said in a press statement on Wednesday.

Asean member states and the US also reaffirmed their commitment to deepen the Asean-US Strategic Partnership.

"Minister Balakrishnan discussed possible future cooperation as part of the region's post-Covid-19 recovery, including vaccine storage and distribution, digitalisation, cybersecurity, and climate change. The Meeting also discussed regional and international issues of mutual concern," the MFA statement added.

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan participating in the Special Asean-US Foreign Ministers' Meeting via videoconference, on July 14, 2021. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS

The meeting comes amid concerns that the US under President Joe Biden is ceding economic and geopolitical influence to China by not sufficiently engaging with the region.

Mr Blinken stressed the central role of Asean in the Indo-Pacific's regional architecture, and reaffirmed America's commitment to the centrality of Asean, said Mr Price.

He added that the ministers also pledged to continue building the Asean-US strategic partnership "based on human rights and fundamental freedoms, economic prosperity, and strong people-to-people ties".

Mr Blinken also underscored America's commitment to working with Asean and international partners to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

America has sent millions of Covid-19 vaccine doses to the region in recent days, including a million doses to Malaysia and three million to Indonesia, as it strives to catch up with China's vaccine diplomacy in the region.

Mr Blinken also emphasised the necessity of taking bold action to address the climate crisis, a priority of the Biden administration.

He also said the US would continue to support a free and open Mekong region under the Mekong-US Partnership.

Washington has criticised Beijing for not being transparent with data from the hydroelectric dams it operates upstream of several Asean states. It blames the dams for some ecological damage in the region, and has expressed concerns over China's growing influence there.

Separately, the South China Morning Post reported on Wednesday that the State Department's second-highest official Wendy Sherman will visit China next week and meet her counterpart, Chinese Foreign Vice-Minister Xie Feng, in Tianjin.

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