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China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks at a press event in Berlin in February. Photo: EPA-EFE

China’s Wang Yi slams US for being ‘biggest driver’ of South China Sea militarisation

  • Disputed waters in the spotlight as Asean foreign ministers kick off virtual summit
  • Vietnamese PM mentions concerns over dispute but stops short of criticising China in name
A four-day series of virtual meetings among Asian foreign ministers kicked off with some diplomatic fireworks on Wednesday, as China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi lashed out at the US for its hardened position on the South China Sea dispute.

Also participating in the meetings was Washington’s top diplomat Michael Pompeo, who said in a statement that he and several regional counterparts reasserted their concerns over China’s “aggressive actions” in the waters.

Regional observers had expected that the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) bloc that convenes the annual meetings would seek to de-escalate tensions over the sea row in post-meeting statements.

The top diplomats are conferring via video link from their home countries in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc of Vietnam – the current chairman of Asean – sought to emphasise in his opening speech that cooperation on medical supplies in the midst of the pandemic as well as speeding up economic recovery were among the group’s key priorities.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (centre) delivers a speech during the opening of the Asean Foreign Ministers' Meeting on Wednesday. Photo: VTV via AP

Nguyen did mention concerns about the sea row, but stopped short of criticising China in name.

Wang however, bluntly pinned blame for the tensions on the US.

Speaking during a meeting of foreign ministers of the East Asia Summit (EAS) grouping, which also includes Asean, the US, and six other countries, the senior Chinese diplomat described Washington as the biggest driver of militarisation in the disputed sea and said the Western superpower had been engaging in smears of China’s actions in the area.

“Peace and stability are China’s greatest strategic interest in the South China Sea,” Wang said, according to remarks published on the foreign ministry website, adding that this was the common strategic aspiration of Beijing and Asean.

Wang also discussed China’s position on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), whose claimant states Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines have invoked to press their case in the long-standing row.

Why are tensions running high in the South China Sea dispute?

These countries, as well as non-claimant Indonesia, oppose China’s claim of some 85 per cent of the sea as part of its controversial “nine-dash line”.

The Southeast Asian claimants say the Chinese boundary encroaches on their territorial waters as set out by Unclos, while Taiwan – viewed by Beijing as a renegade province – has a claim that is similar to that of the Chinese mainland.

Wang pointed out that while China was a party to Unclos, it did not recognise the law’s binding settlement provisions for sea boundary disputes such as the current row. China, upon signing and ratifying the convention, had exercised an opt-out in 2006 over such matters.

Wang said Beijing’s “construction” activity in disputed maritime features – the main gripe by the claimant countries is the Asian superpower’s militarisation of the waters – was aimed at providing “public goods” for the area and ensuring its own security.

“In the face of escalating military pressure from countries outside the region, we certainly have the basic self-protection rights of sovereign states,” Wang said.


The South China Sea dispute explained

The South China Sea dispute explained

In the midst of the broader rivalry between the superpowers, the US has toughened its position over the South China Sea dispute, aligning its legal stance on the row with the findings of a 2016 arbitral ruling against Beijing brought by the Philippines.

That ruling – by an arbitral court formed under Unclos’ dispute settlement mechanism – essentially quashed China’s nine-dash line claim, but Beijing did not participate in the case and does not recognise its findings, citing its 2006 opt-out.

In his remarks, Wang also addressed the broader US-China rivalry. He said the current state of affairs was not a struggle for power or a question of opposing systems, “but about adhering to multilateralism or unilateralism, and advocating win-win cooperation or zero-sum game”.

The foreign ministers of the 10 Asean countries met among themselves earlier on Wednesday before the meeting with Wang and other external counterparts.

US sanctions on Chinese megafirm ‘could ripple across Asia’

The top Asean diplomats were to have released a joint communique following their internal meeting, but that document was not yet publicly available early on Thursday.

The Vietnamese government however released a statement of its own.

The statement said Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh – who is also foreign minister – had in the meeting “frankly expressed concerns over recent complex developments and serious incidents” in the South China Sea, which Hanoi calls the East Sea.

The incidents “have gone contrary to international law and the Unclos, violated the legitimate rights and interests of littoral countries, intensified tensions and undermined peace and security in the East Sea”, Hanoi’s statement said.


China says US sanctions of firms over South China Sea constructions are illegal

China says US sanctions of firms over South China Sea constructions are illegal

Indonesia and Malaysia were among other participants that published their remarks on the first day of meetings.

Kuala Lumpur repeated its position that it hoped for the dispute to be settled by peaceful means and through international law, including Unclos.

“We must all refrain from undertaking activities that would complicate matters in the South China Sea,” Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said during the Asean-only meeting, according to a copy of his remarks released to the media.

He added: “We have to look at all avenues, all approaches, to ensure our region is not complicated by other powers.”

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The series of meetings will culminate on Saturday with the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), in which representatives from Russia, India, the US, Japan, Australia and the European Union will take part.

US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo will also participate in the ARF.

In a statement, the State Department said Pompeo raised several Hong Kong-related concerns during the EAS meeting, including the imposition of the new national security law and the postponement of elections.

Wang, who on Thursday begins a six-day visit to Russia for Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meetings, was earlier expected to remotely attend the ARF as well.

Asked whether the minister would attend the ARF meeting, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Wednesday that “relevant information on the attendance of the Chinese side will be released in due course”.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China hits out at U.S. over disputed waters