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International relations

China fends off pressure over Taiwan in ASEAN-led defense talks

Japan criticizes Beijing's sea legislation; nations vow 'respect for international law'

China regards Taiwan as a "core interest" not subject to outside interference.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe on Wednesday told the U.S., Japan and a host of Southeast Asian neighbors that Beijing will not bend when it comes to Taiwan, the South China Sea and other "core interests."

Speaking at the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus), held online and hosted by Brunei, Wei acknowledged other countries' "legitimate concerns" on unspecified matters but said China's national interests must be fully respected and safeguarded, according to China's Ministry of National Defense.

He listed not only Taiwan and the South China Sea -- where China has overlapping claims with several Association of Southeast Asian Nations members -- but also Xinjiang and Hong Kong. On the growth of China's military power, he suggested it should be considered "part of the growth of the world's peace forces," the ministry said.

In the same meeting, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi stressed the importance of "peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait" for the international community, calling for a resolution of tensions through dialogue.

The meeting brought together 18 countries in all, including the 10 ASEAN members, the U.S., South Korea, India, Russia, Australia and New Zealand. These gatherings have been held since 2010, but Wednesday's session marked the first since Joe Biden became U.S. president.

Wednesday's meeting came a day after Taiwan reported the largest-ever air incursion by Chinese forces. Only last week, at the Group of Seven summit, advanced economies had also urged Taiwan Strait stability and encouraged "the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues."

A Pentagon spokesman said Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin "highlighted unlawful [People's Republic of China] behavior in the South China Sea" during the ASEAN-led meeting, while "underscoring the importance of allies and partners, shared principles, and multilateral approaches to security challenges" in the Indo-Pacific.

In a declaration document released by Singapore after the meeting, the ADMM-Plus members reaffirmed their "respect for and adherence to international law," stressing the importance of "maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, prosperity, safety, and freedom of navigation and overflight."

Japan's Kishi also told the meeting that China's new maritime law, which took effect in February and strengthened its coast guard, "contains provisions that are problematic from the standpoint of consistency with international law." He underscored Japan's vision of a "free and open Indo-Pacific" centered on rule of law, free trade and cooperation on infrastructure development spanning the two oceans.

Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, too, stressed India's own vision of a "free, open and inclusive" order in the Indo-Pacific. He said this should be "based upon respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations, peaceful resolution of disputes through dialogue and adherence to international rules and laws."

Noting recent developments in the South China Sea, Singh said his country supports "freedom of navigation, overflight and unimpeded commerce" in international waterways.

The Philippines released a statement saying that "some" non-ASEAN countries "expressed concern" about China's coast guard law. It said the participants discussed "common regional security challenges such as terrorism, violent extremism, border control, cybersecurity, maritime security and climate change," as well as the coup in Myanmar.

The Pentagon said Austin "called on Myanmar's military to change course."

The day before the meeting, 10 ASEAN defense ministers gathered online on their own and called for an early conclusion of a code of conduct for the South China Sea.

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