HANOI (Reuters) – Southeast Asian foreign ministers kicked off a series of regional summits on Wednesday expected to seek collaboration to fight global threats and to try to de-escalate a tit-for-tat U.S.-China rivalry as the world’s two biggest economies vie for influence.
Russia, Japan, Australia, South Korea and India were among other countries remotely joining an event hosted by Vietnam that will include a 27-nation security forum, as concern grows about rhetoric and accidental conflict, and about other countries being caught up in the fray.
“The regional geopolitical and geoeconomic landscape, including the South China Sea, are witnessing growing volatilities that are detrimental to peace and stability,” Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said in opening the summit.
Vietnam’s foreign minister, Pham Binh Minh, said the role of international law and multilateral institutions was being “greatly challenged”.
The U.S. State Department said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joined several countries from the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and “many other partners” in raising concerns about China’s “aggressive actions” in the South China Sea.
Pompeo and several countries voiced concern about China’s imposition of a new national security law on Hong Kong, the arrests of pro-democracy students, postponement of the territory’s elections and disqualification of pro-democracy electoral candidates, department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.
Pompeo and other ministers also called for a cessation of violence and a negotiated solution to escalating violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State and for North Korea to abandon its weapons of mass destruction, she said.
China’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, accused the United States of intervening directly in disputes among claimants in the South China Sea and of being the biggest driver of its militarisation.
“Peace and stability is China’s greatest strategic interest in the South China Sea,” he told the meeting, according to China’s foreign ministry’s website.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi in an interview with Reuters cautioned the United States and China against entangling Southeast Asian nations in their geopolitical battle.
“We don’t want to get trapped by this rivalry,” she said on Tuesday, describing militarisation of the waterway as “worrying”.
President Donald Trump has trumpeted his tough approach to China in the run-up to his November re-election bid and his administration has spoken out strongly against Beijing over issues from ranging from trade to espionage and China’s maritime conduct.
Washington has accused Beijing of bullying its neighbours by sending ships close to their offshore energy operations, and of opportunism in holding military exercises and testing new defence hardware in disputed locations, while rival claimants battle coronavirus outbreaks. China says its actions were lawful.
Since mid-August, the United States has repeatedly riled China by sending warships to the South China Sea and the sensitive Taiwan Strait and flew a reconnaissance plane over Chinese live-fire drills.
It blacklisted 24 Chinese entities over their involvement in building and militarising artificial islands.
“There’s no desire to take sides – or to be seen to be doing so,” said Collin Koh, a security expert at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
ASEAN would instead discuss with China the advancement of a code of maritime conduct and access to a COVID-19 vaccine, and talk to the United States about increasing investment from corporate America.
ASEAN would try to “de-focus on the intensifying rivalry”, he said.
Ortagus said Pompeo praised ASEAN unity and transparency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and underscored the U.S. commitment to partnering with ASEAN countries in economic recovery efforts.
(Reporting by James Pearson and Khanh Vu; Additional reporting by Tom Allard and Stanley Widianto in Jakarta, Twinnie Siu in Hong Kong, Colin Qian in Beijing and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Peter Cooney)