U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Southeast Asian nations Thursday to speak out against what he called “Chinese coercion” in the South China Sea, although he emphasized that Washington was not asking them to “choose” between the United States and Beijing.
Pompeo conveyed the message in Bangkok during an annual meeting of top diplomats from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which had underscored its neutrality and called for respect for territorial sovereignty when it adopted a strategic concept on the Indo-Pacific region in June.
“Look, we don’t ever ask any Indo-Pacific nations to choose between countries,” Pompeo said in his speech. “Our engagement in this region has not been and will not be a zero-sum exercise. Our interests simply naturally converge with yours to our mutual benefit.”
He said he had conveyed to his counterparts from ASEAN’s 10-members “to speak out against Chinese coercion in the South China Sea.”
Last month, the U.S. State Department expressed concern over reports that Beijing was hampering oil and gas activities of other nations with overlapping claims in the contested waterway, including Vietnam’s long-standing exploration and production activities. While it did not clearly say when those alleged incidents took place, the department said that Beijing’s acts threatened regional peace and security.
“By blocking development in the SCS [South China Sea] through coercive means, China prevents ASEAN members from accessing more than US$2.5 trillion in recoverable energy reserves,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement issued on July 20.
The United States “firmly opposes coercion and intimidation by any claimant to assert its territorial or maritime claims,” she said, adding, “China should cease its bullying behavior and refrain from engaging in this type of provocative and destabilizing activity.”
Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea and frequently castigates Washington and its allies for naval operations in the maritime region, where China has built numerous military installations with advanced ballistic-missile capabilities on reclaimed islands under its control.
China’s recent deployments of Coast Guard ships and a fleet of fishing militia in disputed waters brought about a condemnation by both Republican and Democratic senators who lambasted Beijing’s “unlawful activities” in the South China Sea.
“Identifying concrete ways to push back on China’s aggressive activities in the South China Sea should be at the top of the United States’ agenda during ASEAN meetings in Bangkok this week,” U.S. Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.
“It is crucial that our partners in the region, particularly ASEAN countries, stand together and stand firm against China’s coercion,” he said. “Without a stronger rebuke of its behavior, China will continue to act with impunity in the South China Sea, to the detriment of our shared interests.”
Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, said “it is critical that China be held to account for its behavior in the South China Sea.”
“We need a strategy that reflects America’s deep and enduring interests in working with allies and partners to help build a South China Sea where international law is respected, freedom of navigation is ensured,” he said.
Sen. Cory Gardner, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, called on Pompeo to emphasize that the United States would always stand by its ASEAN partners.
“China’s militarization of the South China Sea and hostile actions toward other claimant states are illegal, destabilizing, and contrary to international law,” he said.
Amid trade and maritime disputes between the two major powers, Beijing has been exhibiting its global clout through its One Belt One Road infrastructure initiative, which aims to link China with Africa, Europe and Southeast Asia through networks of railways, bridges and ports.
Before Pompeo left the United States for his trip to Thailand, a senior U.S. State Department official told a news briefing that the top U.S. diplomat was expected to reassure U.S. allies that Washington was fully engaged in Asia despite China’s active moves to bolster its political and military ties in the region.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who met Pompeo on the sidelines of the ASEAN forum on Thursday, said he was told by his American counterpart that the United States had no desire to contain China’s development.
“China has the right to development, too,” Wang told reporters after the meeting. “It will not be stopped by anyone.”
The big-power rivalry took center stage a day after Manila said it had filed a diplomatic protest over Chinese boats swarming around territory occupied by the Philippines in the South China Sea.
Philippine defense officials had confirmed that 113 Chinese vessels were spotted near Pag-asa Island – which the Chinese call Thitu Island – on July 24 and 25,
On Wednesday, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin announced via Twitter that Manila had lodged a protest but did not say when it took the diplomatic action.
Manila has occupied Pag-asa, located about 300 miles (483 km) west of Palawan province, since the 1970s.
Earlier this week, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana accused Beijing of “bullying” his country in the South China Sea.
Lorenzana made the allegation as Manila and Beijing dealt with the fallout from a June incident when a Chinese trawler rammed and sank a smaller Filipino fishing boat near Recto Bank, also in the South China Sea.
ASEAN defense ministers met in Bangkok last month and signed a declaration, which included a guideline to reach a code of conduct in the South China Sea. For years, ASEAN and Beijing have been working on that code, which diplomats hope will make the sea more peaceful.
On Thursday, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah told reporters in Bangkok that ASEAN must remain neutral in its dealings with China and the United States.
Five countries – Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines – have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which more than U.S. $3 billion of trade passes annually.
“We must maintain ASEAN centrality in as far as the concept of Indo-Pacific and all of the other concepts,” Saifuddin said.
Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.