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International relations

China tells Singapore it supports ASEAN approach to Myanmar crisis

Foreign ministers' talks kick off string of visits, with Malaysia and others to follow

Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, left, meets with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Fujian, China, on March 31. (Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore)

SINGAPORE -- China is the focus of a flurry of diplomacy this week, as foreign ministers from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea make successive visits against the backdrop of a Myanmar crisis and rising Sino-American tensions.

Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Wednesday met with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in the southern province of Fujian, where many ethnic Chinese living in Southeast Asia trace their roots.

According to a statement issued by Singapore's foreign ministry after the meeting, the two ministers "exchanged views on regional and international developments." On the Myanmar crisis, they "called for a de-escalation of the situation, a cessation of violence and the commencement of constructive dialogue among all sides," the statement said.

China's Foreign Ministry in a separate statement confirmed that the ministers had discussed Myanmar.

Wang described Myanmar as an important member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations family. He said he was pleased to see and support the bloc's efforts to maintain its "non-interference" principle and play a positive role in promoting the stability of the situation in Myanmar through the "ASEAN approach," according to China's statement.

Wang also said the two sides should work together to "improve the level of China-ASEAN relations," saying his country firmly supports the ASEAN-centered regional cooperation framework.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein was due to visit China on Thursday and Friday. He and Wang are expected to discuss "a range of regional and international issues of mutual concern," according to the Malaysian side.

On Wednesday, on the eve of his trip, Hishammuddin tweeted that he had just "discussed international and regional issues" with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken over the phone, including Myanmar and the South China Sea.

The travel itineraries for Indonesia's Retno Marsudi and the Philippines' Teodoro Locsin were unknown as of publication time. But China's Foreign Ministry said they too were visiting this week at Wang's invitation. It appeared that Wang would meet them individually.

South Korea, meanwhile, said Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong would travel to China on Friday and Saturday.

Beijing is eager to strengthen ties with ASEAN, despite South China Sea territorial disputes with several members. In her briefing on Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said China "hopes to step up communication with ASEAN countries" on regional and international matters, strengthen "strategic mutual trust," deepen joint efforts against the pandemic and boost Belt and Road cooperation.

Hua said this would "contribute to regional peace, stability and development."

China's efforts to shore up relations come as it locks horns with U.S. President Joe Biden's new administration. It also finds its Indo-Pacific activities under the watchful eye of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, involving the U.S., Japan, India and Australia.

For their part, the ASEAN bloc's key members are confronted with a worsening crisis in Myanmar.

More than 500 people in Myanmar have been killed since the Feb. 1 coup, prompting international demands for a peaceful resolution and raising pressure on ASEAN to broker one.

Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have led an ASEAN initiative to end the violence, in part by pushing for a special summit that would allow dialogue with the Myanmar military.

The Philippines is now ASEAN's country coordinator for China. China is seen as a potential force for easing the Myanmar crisis, given its regional clout and significant investment interests in the troubled nation.

Earlier this week, Indonesia's Marsudi also discussed Myanmar with another major player, Japan, while on a visit to Tokyo.

The recent string of visits to China follows Wang's outreach to ASEAN in January, when he toured Myanmar, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines. He visited other ASEAN countries, including Malaysia and Thailand, last October.

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