BANGKOK – In a veiled reference to the United States, Beijing on Wednesday asked foreign countries not to interfere in the South China Sea territorial conflict, which has intensified in recent months with countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that non-regional nations were taking advantage of differences (between the countries involved in the dispute) to sow mistrust in an area where the Asian giant’s sovereignty claim also clashes with the demands of Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
Beijing is trying to address tensions through peaceful solutions that maintain security and stability in the waters, Yi said at a press conference after a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its allies in Bangkok.
Earlier this month, the United States, whose Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will take part in the meetings on Thursday, urged China to “cease its bullying behavior” with regard to its disputes with neighboring countries.
Vietnam and the Philippines, both ASEAN members, have lodged formal protests with Beijing for sending Chinese frigates and warships to disputed waters.
“We discussed the situation in the South China Sea, during which concerns were expressed by some Ministers on the land reclamations, activities and serious incidents in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region,” the ASEAN ministers said in a joint statement on Wednesday.
However, China and ASEAN renewed their commitment to continue working on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC), which promotes a peaceful way to resolve the multilateral conflict in a key strategic zone for trade routes that is rich in natural resources.
The US-China rivalry is one of the main focus points of the summit in Bangkok, where ASEAN and Beijing have taken a stand in favor of a multilateral trading system and against the protectionist measures adopted by the government of US President Donald Trump.
“Politically and economically, we are witnessing increased nationalism that sometimes could run counter to our shared long-term interests,” Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said in his opening speech.
Apart from China and the US and the ten ASEAN members – Myanmar, Brunei, Cambodia, Philippines, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – also taking part in the event are foreign ministers of Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Peru and the European Union, among other countries.
Britain’s newly appointed Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, will seek new business opportunities in Thailand – which this year holds the rotating chair of the bloc – and strengthen diplomatic ties amid the UK’s exit from the EU.
Raab, whose participation is not part of the official agenda, held bilateral meetings with countries including Indonesia, whose foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, expressed his intention to work together with his British counterpart to improve bilateral relations.
During the plenary session, Retno also touched upon the Rohingya humanitarian crisis and the process of repatriating this ethnic minority to Myanmar, which does not recognize this community.
Since Aug. 2017, around 738,000 Rohingyas have fled to the neighboring Myanmar following an operation by the Myanmar army, which the United Nations has described as a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.”
“We stressed the need to find a comprehensive and durable solution to address the root causes of the conflict and to create a conducive environment so that the affected communities can rebuild their lives,” the bloc said in the joint statement.
ASEAN – founded in 1967 – accounts for a population of 647 million which aims to raise its combined GDP to $4.7 trillion by 2025 and become the world’s fourth-largest economic power.