Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Monday told a gathering of leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that his country will avoid dominating the region, a pledge that comes as Beijing is involved in disputes with bloc members over its broad claims in the South China Sea.
“China firmly opposes hegemony and power politics,” Xi told a virtual gathering to mark three decades of ties between ASEAN and his country, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
He added that Beijing wants to get along with its neighbors and work to maintain lasting peace in the region. China will “never seek hegemony, let alone bullying the small nations as a big country,” Xi said, in comments that echo a veiled swipe he took at the U.S. last year.
Yet China’s expansive territorial claims in the resource-rich South China Sea have put it at odds with neighbors including Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. Last week, the Philippines accused China of firing water cannons to prevent its boats from resupplying a South China Sea outpost.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin said on Twitter Thursday that he had conveyed “our outrage, condemnation and protest” to Chinese counterpart Wang Yi over the incident. Locsin said three Chinese coast guard vessels had blocked two Philippine boats trying to transport food to soldiers stationed on Second Thomas Shoal, also known as the Ayungin Shoal.
Last month, the Philippines and Malaysia complained about incursions by Chinese vessels in areas of the South China Sea they claim as their own. Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah warned last month that his country could see more Chinese ships in its maritime territory while state-owned Petronas developed the Kasawari gas field in its exclusive economic zone off Sarawak.
Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob told ASEAN leaders and Xi via video Monday that issues “relating to the South China Sea must be resolved peacefully and constructively in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS.” He was referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea agreement that serves as a legal framework for maritime activities.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte told the gathering that problems in the body of water can’t be resolved by force.
“We abhor the recent events in the Ayungin Shoal and view with grave concern other similar developments,” he told the meeting. “This does not speak well of the relations between our nations and our partnership.”
In 2016, an international tribunal ruled that China’s efforts to assert control over the South China Sea exceeded the law. The case was brought by the Philippines, which argued that China’s claims of historic rights don’t comply with the UNCLOS.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague said at the time that the ruling was binding, but it lacks a mechanism for enforcement. China and ASEAN have been working on a code of conduct covering the disputed body of water for nearly 20 years.
For decades, the U.S. has sent warships and aircraft near disputed areas of the South China Sea — which has some $3 trillion worth of trade transiting through it annually — in an effort to assert the freedom to navigate through what it considers international airspace and waters.
China wanted Myanmar’s coup leader, Min Aung Hlaing, to attend the the ASEAN gathering but decided against the move when members of the bloc objected, The Irrawaddy news website reported, without saying where it got the information.
Last month, ASEAN blocked the military leader from attending an annual summit on the grounds the regime has not done enough to end violence after seizing the government in a coup in February.
However the nine ASEAN countries agreed on Monday to China’s suggestion that Myanmar’s ambassador to Beijing, U Myo Thant Pe, serve as a representative to the bloc, Saifuddin said. He added China has donated 28 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to the 10 countries in Southeast Asia, and another 1 million doses would be shipped to Malaysia on top of the 500,000 already received.
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