Asia-Pacific leaders voiced concern over the situation in the resource-rich South China Sea at a regional summit on Saturday, a Japanese government official said, as security tensions between the United States and China have shown no sign of easing.
The virtual meeting of the 18-member East Asia Summit took place for the first time following the U.S. presidential election earlier this month. Many Asian countries have begun to consider how to build ties with the upcoming administration of Democrat President-elect Joe Biden.
Incumbent U.S. President Donald Trump was absent for the fourth straight year, with national security adviser Robert O’Brien participating on his behalf. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang also joined the online meeting.
As American diplomacy toward the Asia-Pacific region has become unclear in the wake of the U.S. election, China has been eager to boost relations with the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Claiming sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, Beijing has rapidly built artificial islands with military infrastructure in the region.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called out moves in the East and South China seas that “run counter to the rule of law and openness” and shared deep concerns with other countries in the region, without explicitly naming China, according to the government official.
China has conflicting territorial claims with four ASEAN members — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, and also Taiwan — in the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which more than one-third of global trade passes.
It also claims the Senkakus, a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea administered by Japan. They are called the Diaoyu in China.
At the summit, Suga argued that activities infringing on Japan’s sovereignty have persisted in the East China Sea, the official said.
As for the South China Sea, Beijing has sought an early conclusion of talks on a so-called code of conduct with ASEAN to avert clashes in the waters, with Washington and Tokyo criticizing China’s military buildup there.
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the meeting, “I welcome progress made in negotiations between ASEAN and China” on the code of conduct.
“But there is a lot of work ahead, and we should keep up the momentum of discussions so that we can conclude an effective and substantive” code of conduct, he added.
In July, the Trump administration said it was taking a tougher stance against Beijing’s maritime assertiveness in the waters, calling Chinese claims to offshore resources there “completely unlawful.”
In November, however, China decided to allow its coast guard to use weapons when foreign ships involved in illegal activities in waters it controls fail to obey orders.
Trump’s no-show in the East Asia Summit, meanwhile, is seen as a missed opportunity for Washington to extend its influence in the ASEAN region, foreign affairs experts say.
At the gathering, Asia-Pacific leaders also touched on Hong Kong, with the Japanese official quoting Suga as expressing “grave concern” over the situation in China’s special administrative region.
In late June, Beijing enacted a national security law for Hong Kong to crack down on what it views as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, apparently aiming to quell protests against the pro-Beijing government in the territory.
Since then, many Western nations, including the United States and Britain, have been lambasting the sweeping legislation for jeopardizing freedoms and human rights in the city, where democracy is supposed to be guaranteed.
Under China’s “one country, two systems” principle, Hong Kong was promised it would enjoy rights and freedoms for 50 years following its return to Chinese rule in 1997.
The East Asia Summit comprises ASEAN — which groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the United States.
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