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International relations

Sino-US tug of war looms large in ASEAN meetings

China to use promise of coronavirus vaccine to sway members to its side

A Chinese guided-missile frigate: The ASEAN meetings take place against the backdrop of mounting tensions in the South China Sea.   © Reuters

HANOI -- Southeast Asian nations remain divided over how to respond to Chinese maritime advances in South China Sea as the region gets ready to kick off a four-day series of meetings, with Washington and Beijing engaging in an intense tug of war.

The meetings, hosted by Vietnam, will take place online from Wednesday. The ASEAN Regional Forum on Saturday, the final day, will bring together representatives from 27 countries and organizations, including Japan and North Korea, to discuss Asia-Pacific security. The meeting was previously slated for late July but was postponed over the pandemic.

The U.S. plans to use this opportunity in its lobbying for support to halt China's de facto control over the South China Sea, where tensions have escalated in recent months. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced his participation last Wednesday, before the schedule was officially released.

On the Chinese side, Foreign Minister Wang Yi is expected to attend. Beijing looks to use infrastructure financing and its vaccine candidates to sway ASEAN members to its side and strengthen its hold on the South China Sea.

ASEAN members' responses to Washington's advances have varied.

Malaysia wrote to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in late July that Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea have "no basis under international law." In response, Politburo member Yang Jiechi, China's top diplomat, scrapped a planned visit to the country.

Vietnam, which sides with the China skeptics, is expected to seek to include language criticizing China's "use of force" in the ASEAN Regional Forum chairman's statement due out Saturday.

Meanwhile, such countries as Cambodia and Myanmar that receive substantial monetary support from China will likely hesitate to cross Beijing. China accounts for more than 30% of all trade with both Myanmar and Laos, which are among the less-developed economies in the bloc.

Beijing has already begun using its coronavirus vaccine development efforts for diplomatic ends. Premier Li Keqiang said in late August that five countries along the Mekong River, including Thailand and Myanmar, would receive priority access to a vaccine. And President Xi Jinping and Indonesian counterpart Joko Widodo affirmed in an Aug. 31 call their cooperation on vaccine development and manufacturing.

American officials have decried Beijing's utilitarian approach to diplomacy, but many ASEAN members remain skeptical of siding with the U.S. when doing so offers no tangible benefit.

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