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South China Sea

Dangling vaccines and aid, US and China vie for ASEAN clout

Southeast Asian nations express concern over land reclamation

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, center, arrives at a meeting with ASEAN foreign ministers in Vientiane, Laos, on Feb. 20.   © Reuters

HANOI/BEIJING/WASHINGTON -- The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has said it does not want to take sides in the Sino-American rivalry in the South China Sea. ASEAN ministers have said they do not want to be stuck in the middle as the rhetoric escalates ahead of the November's elections in the U.S.

But this has not stopped Washington and Beijing from waging a fierce lobbying war at ASEAN virtual meetings being held through Saturday.

"Don't let the Chinese Communist Party walk over us and our people," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told foreign ministers Thursday.

Speaking up is not enough, Pompeo said, urging ASEAN nations to act: "Reconsider business dealings with the very state-owned companies that bully ASEAN coastal states in the South China Sea."

He reportedly reiterated that the U.S., in line with a 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling, regards Beijing's expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea as "unlawful."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo takes part in a virtual meeting from the State Department in Washington on Sept. 10. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of State)

A day earlier, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told foreign ministers at the virtual East Asia Summit that the U.S. "is becoming the most dangerous factor damaging peace in the South China Sea."

The Chinese diplomat said the American military had flown 3,000 aircraft sorties over the South China Sea in the first half of 2020 alone and had sent in 60-odd vessels.

Eager for more clout with ASEAN, each superpower is pitching the pluses of joining its camp.

China promised to deliver a COVID-19 vaccine.

It will prioritize ASEAN's needs in supplying the vaccine, Wang told his ASEAN counterparts Wednesday.

Wang and top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi had met with officials from Indonesia, Myanmar and elsewhere ahead of the meeting, offering Beijing's cooperation in vaccine development. The Philippines has also requested Chinese help, despite the countries' competing claims in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, Pompeo said Washington will aid ASEAN's response to the new coronavirus.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi expressed hopes regarding U.S. cooperation toward a homegrown vaccine. Though Indonesia plans to source vaccine from China, it wants to develop a domestic alternative as well to curb its dependence on Beijing.

Pompeo also stressed that his government and the private sector will assist economic development in Southeast Asia.

ASEAN members thanked the U.S. for over $87 million in health and humanitarian assistance to fight COVID-19, the U.S. State Department said.

Pompeo and Wang, however, avoided a direct clash. A third-party diplomat told Nikkei that Wang's message to the East Asia Summit was a prerecorded video. Wang quickly went off to Moscow and will miss the ASEAN Regional Forum on Saturday.

And Pompeo, while harsh, did not mention new sanctions against Beijing. "The statements were similar to the ones he's made before," a diplomatic source noted. "It was within expectations."

Meanwhile, the ASEAN foreign ministers took a jab at China in a statement for Wednesday's meeting, saying that "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."

But the wording largely reflected that from the July 2019 statement after the Bangkok meeting.

It also emphasized the importance of nonmilitarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states "that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea."

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