Rising tensions in the South China Sea and fallout from US-China trade tensions are set to dominate talks this week as top diplomats converge in Bangkok for a key ASEAN summit.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is to be joined at the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting by Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi (王毅) on the heels of trade negotiations between the two countries in Shanghai yesterday.
The meetings come amid accusations from Vietnam and the Philippines that China has become more aggressive in asserting its claim to vast swathes of the South China Sea — a move the US last week termed “bullying behavior.”
Still, China will be looking to further advance a long-anticipated maritime code of conduct with ASEAN members after the two sides agreed to a preliminary draft, an Indonesian official said on Monday.
“The South China Sea will be an important agenda item — they will be seeking to curb any further hardening of stance by the Philippines,” said Alexander Neill, an expert on Chinese military affairs at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “They will likely reiterate their sovereignty over the island and reefs and criticize external interference.”
Pompeo will seek to soothe trade tensions between South Korea and Japan, according to a US official discussing Pompeo’s trip who asked not to be identified.
Pompeo, who is on a six-day trip through Thailand, Micronesia and Australia, is also to give a speech on US economic engagement there as part of the US’ vision of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region.
For China, the meetings are to serve as an opportunity to curb growing anxieties from Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines, which accuses it of deploying its coast guard and maritime militias to assert control in the South China Sea.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Friday said that the situation in the South China Sea “has been stabilized in general, with growing momentum for cooperation and increasing positive factors.”
However, Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana said at a briefing in Manila yesterday that China’s assurances of peace in the disputed sea do not match its actions.
Jose Tavares, director-general for ASEAN affairs at the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that while there is no timeline for negotiations, China and ASEAN members have finished a preliminary draft on a maritime code of conduct.
The negotiations follow the adoption last month of an ASEAN Indo-Pacific Concept that analysts say is a nod to the US’ concerns.
Still, the US Department of State has argued that China is mounting pressure on ASEAN to adopt unfavorable terms in the code of conduct. The dispute underscores the region’s difficulty in handling growing tensions between the world’s two superpowers.
“ASEAN is under unusual stress as a result of growing contestation between the US and China,” King’s College London international relations professor Harsh Pant said. “The traditional comfort of having China as an economic partner and the US as security partner is no longer very valid.”
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