Asia Pacific / Politics | FOCUS

Rising tensions in South China Sea cast shadow over ASEAN summit

Bloomberg, AP

Rising tensions in the South China Sea and the fallout from the U.S.-China trade war are set to dominate talks this week as top diplomats converge in Bangkok for a key Southeast Asia summit.

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo will be joined at the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) by his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, on the heels of trade negotiations between the two countries in Shanghai on Tuesday.

Chaired this year by Thailand, officials say there will be 27 meetings in all at the ASEAN gathering through Saturday, and 31 countries and alliances will participate.

The meetings come amid accusations from Vietnam and the Philippines that China has become more aggressive in asserting its claims to vast swaths of the South China Sea — a move the U.S. last week termed “bullying behavior.”

China will be looking to further advance a long-anticipated maritime code of conduct with ASEAN — Southeast Asia’s 10-nation bloc — after the two sides agreed to a preliminary draft, an Indonesian official said 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.”

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho will not be attending, Yonhap News reported last week, dashing any chance of a meeting with U.S. officials. It would have been the first encounter between the two sides since U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shook hands in the Demilitarized Zone last month.

While talks with North Korea may not be in the cards, Pompeo will seek to soothe trade tensions between two American allies — South Korea and Japan — according to a U.S. official discussing Pompeo’s trip who asked not to be identified. A dispute between the two escalated this month when Japan tightened controls on the export to South Korea of three materials vital to semiconductor and display manufacturing.

Pompeo, who is on a six-day trip through Thailand, Micronesia and Australia, will also give a speech on U.S. economic engagement in the region as part of the Trump administration’s vision of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific.

For China, the meetings will serve as an opportunity to curb growing anxieties from Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines, who accuse them of deploying their Coast Guard and maritime militias to assert control in the South China Sea.

On Friday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed that the situation in the South China Sea “has been stabilized in general, with growing momentum for cooperation and increasing positive factors.”

Jose Tavares, director general for ASEAN affairs at Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry, confirmed that while there’s no timeline for negotiations, China and ASEAN did recently finish a preliminary draft on a maritime code of conduct.

“We are envisaging the continuation of the negotiation between ASEAN and China on the single draft, negotiating text of the code of conduct, moving to the next stage,” Tavares said.

The negotiations follow the adoption of an ASEAN Indo-Pacific Concept last month that analysts say is a nod to U.S. concerns. Still, the U.S. State Department 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.

Trade will also feature heavily at the summit given the ongoing U.S.-China trade conflict, said Harsh Pant, professor of international relations at King’s College London, who added that it will be tough for the bloc to maintain a balance between the two economic superpowers.

“ASEAN is under unusual stress as a result of growing contestation between the U.S. and China,” Pant said. “The traditional comfort of having China as an economic partner and the U.S. as security partner is no longer very valid.”

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5