China yesterday urged non-Asian nations to avoid sowing “distrust” and division over contested seas in a swipe at the US shortly before its top diplomat was due to arrive at a Bangkok summit bearing a message of reinvigorated American trade and security engagement in the region.
The big power rivalry, framed by a trade war that has withered global growth, has dominated the summit of Southeast Asian foreign ministers, which opened Wednesday.
Beijing’s military ambitions in contested seas and airspace are poised to rub up against a drive -- led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo -- to reassert the US’ role as a key Asia-Pacific power.
China is accused of deploying warships, arming outposts and ramming fishing vessels in contested territory in the South China Sea, one of the world’s key shipping routes, which the US is desperate to keep open.
Meanwhile, China staunchly disputes the right of outside powers - principally the US - to influence an issue in what it considers to be its “neighbourhood”.
“We think non-regional countries should not deliberately amplify such differences that have been left from the past,” China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters.
Outside countries must not “to sow distrust between China and Asean countries”, he added, referencing the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“In a word, China will continue to view Asean as a priority in its neighbourhood.”
The administration of Donald Trump, which yanked the US from a massive Asia-Pacific trade pact, has launched a rebranded “Indo-Pacific” security, open seas and commerce strategy.
That includes “ensuring the freedom of seas and skies; insulating sovereign nations from external coercion”, a senior State Department official said.
Pompeo is set to meet with his Chinese counterpart today.
Fresh security tensions will also get an airing, including an unprecedented joint China-Russia bomber patrol last week that angered Japan and South Korea.
While China denies it flouted Japanese or Korean airspace, the exercise has rattled Tokyo and Seoul -- and posed a new test of Washington’s influence in a region home to the two crucial US allies.