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International relations

China looks to one-up US with face-to-face ASEAN talks

Washington rushes for virtual meeting as vaccines and Myanmar loom large

Foreign ministers from China and ASEAN last met in person during February 2020 to discuss the coronavirus outbreak.   © Reuters

JAKARTA -- The U.S.-China tug of war for influence in Southeast Asia looks to intensify in the coming weeks with a pair of ministerial meetings in the works, including Beijing's first face-to-face gathering with the regional bloc since early last year.

Beijing and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are planning a meeting of foreign ministers June 7-8, possibly in China, an ASEAN diplomatic source said.

The two sides have avoided in-person talks since a February 2020 gathering in Laos on the coronavirus outbreak. China is keen to beat other big regional players such as the U.S. and Japan to the punch in resuming face-to-face meetings.

Meanwhile, Washington is scrambling to arrange a virtual meeting of foreign ministers -- its first with ASEAN under President Joe Biden -- with May 25 as the likely date. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had sought video talks back in February to discuss the coup in Myanmar, but the proposal fell through because of reluctance among the country's military and certain ASEAN members.

Both the U.S. and China are expected to offer help in vaccine supplies. As highly contagious coronavirus variants sweep through the region, authorities are searching for shots to control the spread.

Beijing also may make new offers of cooperation to help ASEAN members in their post-virus economic recovery.

Washington plans to put China's military buildup in the South China Sea and resulting tensions high on its agenda. Beijing and ASEAN are expected to revive talks toward a code of conduct to avoid conflict in the South China Sea, an effort that stalled amid the pandemic.

ASEAN members intend to ask both countries for cooperation in addressing the Myanmar coup and the subsequent protests and bloodshed.

Leaders of the bloc signed on to a five-point "consensus" in a summit late last month, including humanitarian assistance and the appointment of a special envoy to mediate dialogue, but these points have yet to be implemented. ASEAN hopes to bring Washington and Beijing on board before choosing an envoy and getting diplomatic efforts fully underway.

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