In a shot across China’s bow, Southeast Asian nations expressed their concern over disputes and militarization in the South China Sea by openly welcoming a greater role for the US in the maritime region.
During a virtual summit between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on Thursday (September 10), Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh “welcome[d] the US’s constructive and responsive contributions to ASEAN’s efforts to maintaining the peace, stability and developments in the South China Sea.”
Vietnam’s statement carries weight as it is not only a major rival claimant to China in the contested waterway but is also currently serving as revolving chairman of the 10-member bloc, which operates based on rigorous consultations and consensus.
A visibly pleased Pompeo said in a tweet that he was “pleased to join my counterparts” in the region and reiterated that the US is “committed to working with partners in the Indo-Pacific to uphold the rules-based order that has underpinned security and prosperity for more than 70 years.”
At the same time, he implored ASEAN states to follow America’s lead by cutting ties with Chinese companies and individuals involved in militarizing the sea. This month, the US blacklisted two dozen Chinese companies for their activities in the South China Sea.
Pompeo said regional governments should “reconsider business dealings with the very state-owned companies that bully ASEAN coastal states in the South China Sea.” He implored: “Don’t let the Chinese Communist party walk over us and our people.”
The ASEAN chairman’s statement stood in stark contrast to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s remarks just a day earlier during the Vietnam-led East Asia Summit. There, he characterized the US as “the biggest driver of militarization of the South China Sea” and criticized Washington’s expanding naval deployments in the maritime area as being driven by “its own political purposes.”
“[The US is] the most dangerous factor that damages the peace in the South China Sea,” Wang said while calling on “external powers” to stay out of the disputes between China and rival ASEAN claimants to the sea.
“Peace and stability are China’s greatest strategic interest in the South China Sea, which are also the common aspiration of ASEAN countries,” Wang added.
In an apparent bid to counter rising strategic cooperation between the US and regional states, China Defense Minister Wei Fenghe embarked on a charm offensive this week through meetings with top officials in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Though Indonesia is not a claimant state in the South China Sea, it has been at loggerheads with Beijing over the North Natuna Sea, where China claims “historic rights” over fisheries and marine resources.
Earlier this year, Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited the contested area to underscore his country’s claim over the resource-rich waters off the Natuna Islands.
Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, who ran on an anti-China presidential campaign last year, was quick to downplay his recent meeting with his Chinese counterpart.
According to Prabowo’s spokesman Dahnil Anzar Simanjuntak, the meeting was just a “normal reciprocal courtesy call” and reiterated that Jakarta was “committed towards dialogue and peaceful [resolution]” in the South China Sea.
But there was no sign of soft-pedaling on the disputes in the North Natuna Sea, where Indonesia has significantly expanded its military presence.
Neither has Malaysia expressed any willingness to scale back its activities in the South China Sea, where it’s been conducting unilateral energy exploration activities within China’s nine-dash line since last year. In recent months, China has sent boats to pester Malaysia’s exploration rig.
Meanwhile, Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana openly criticized China’s continued militarization of disputed land features in Manila-claimed waters.
“China continues with improvements on the islands they built. We do not know what they are doing there, but we know that they are always there and the number of buildings remains on the rise,” said Lorenzana during a virtual hearing with Philippine legislators on September 7 in a mix of Filipino and English.
“We are doing our best with the assets available to us to patrol our areas…we are trying our best with our limited assets to assert our sovereignty over the area,” the Philippine defense chief added.
For its part, Vietnam has repeatedly emphasized the growing threat posed by China.
“We express serious concern over ongoing developments on the ground including serious incidents, continued militarization and activities that infringe on the lawful rights of littoral countries, run counter to international law,” Vietnam’s foreign minister said, while stepping just short of openly naming China in deference to ASEAN’s China-aligned members, including Cambodia and Laos.
“These have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and undermined peace, security and rule of law in the region,” the Vietnamese diplomat added following the conclusion of talks with the US.
According to an official statement by the US State Department, “Secretary Pompeo joined several ASEAN countries and many other partners in raising concerns over the PRC’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea. He reiterated that the United States, in line with the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal Award, regards Beijing’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea as unlawful.”
Pompeo also pushed the envelope by criticizing Beijing’s recent squeeze of Hong Kong, provoking an angry diplomatic response from China.
In response, besieged Chinese Foreign Minister Wang lashed back by stating the ASEAN-hosted East Asia Summit should “never have been a venue for interfering into other countries’ internal affairs, and should not become a stage to attack other countries’ political system.”
At the same time, the Chinese diplomat defended his country’s actions in the South China Sea by claiming they are meant to provide “public good” for the region, as well as defend its interests amid rising naval deployments by the US and its allies.
“In the face of a non-regional country’s military pressure, of course, we have the right to protect our own sovereignty,” Wang said.