• Associated Press

China’s Premier Is on a Charm Offensive as ASEAN Summit Protests Beijing’s Aggression at Sea

Yasuyoshi Chiba/Pool Photo via AP
China’s Premier Li Qiang speaks at the 26th ASEAN-China Summit during the 43rd ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023.

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — In talks with Southeast Asian leaders Wednesday in the Indonesian capital, Chinese Premier Li Qiang underscored his country’s importance as the world’s second-biggest economy and as the top trading partner of the region.

Countering renewed alarm over Beijing’s aggression in the disputed South China Sea, Li cited China’s long history of friendship with Southeast Asia, including joint efforts to confront the coronavirus pandemic and how both sides have settled differences through dialogue.

As long as we keep to the right path, no matter what storm may come, China-ASEAN cooperation will be as firm as ever and press ahead against all odds, Li told counterparts in the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations. “We have preserved peace and tranquility in East Asia in a world fraught with turbulence and change.”

In a separate meeting with ASEAN leaders, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris cited the strategic importance of America’s security and relations with Southeast Asia to both sides. Her opening speech before their closed-door summit did not carry any of the usual strident U.S. criticism of China’s aggressive actions in the region.

Rival claimant states in the South China Sea from among the ASEAN nations have protested China’s aggressive moves to fortify its vast territorial claims in the strategic sea passage. A new Chinese map set off a wave of protests from other countries’ leaders, who say it shows Beijing’s expansive claims encroaching into their coastal waters.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has expressed his alarm over recent combativeness in the disputed waters. In early August, a Chinese coast guard ship used a water cannon to try to block a Philippine navy-operated boat that was bringing supplies to Filipino forces in the disputed Second Thomas Shoal.

We do not seek conflict, but it is our duty as citizens and as leaders to always rise to meet any challenge to our sovereignty, to our sovereign rights, and our maritime jurisdictions in the South China Sea, Marcos told fellow leaders in an ASEAN-only meeting Tuesday.

A copy of Marcos’ remarks during ASEAN’s hourlong meeting with Qiang on Wednesday issued to journalists showed the Philippine president fired a veiled critique but did not raise any specific aggressions in the disputed sea.

The Philippines “continues to uphold the primacy of the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea as the framework within which all activities in the seas and oceans are conducted,” Marcos said in the meeting. “We once again reaffirm our commitment to the rule of law and peaceful settlement of disputes.”

In 2016, an arbitration tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, set up under that United Nations convention, ruled that China’s vast territorial claims in the South China Sea based on historical grounds have no legal basis.

China, a full dialogue partner of ASEAN, did not participate in the arbitration sought in 2013 by the Philippines, rejected the 2016 ruling, and continues to defy it.

China, Taiwan and some ASEAN member states — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — have been locked for decades in an increasingly tense territorial standoff in the South China Sea, where a bulk of global trade transits.

It’s also become a delicate frontline in the U.S.-China rivalry.

Washington does not lay any claim to the offshore region but has deployed its warships and fighters to undertake what it says are freedom of navigation and overflight patrols. China has warned the U.S. not to meddle in what it says is a purely Asian dispute.

The South China Sea conflicts do not directly include the rest of the ASEAN — Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Myanmar. Questions have been raised why the regional bloc, and its current leader Indonesia, failed to issue any expression of alarm over the Chinese coast guard’s actions, which were strongly opposed by the U.S. and other Western and Asian nations.

Marty Natalegawa, a respected former foreign minister of Indonesia, called ASEAN’s failure to condemn China’s aggressive acts “a deafening silence.”

Aside from the long-simmering territorial conflicts, the Jakarta summit talks focused on the protracted civil strife in Myanmar, which has tested ASEAN and caused divisions among member states on how to effectively resolve the crisis.

An assessment of a five-point ASEAN peace plan showed it has failed to make any significant progress since it was introduced two years ago. The plan calls for an immediate end to the deadly hostilities, and a dialogue between contending parties, including that of Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratically elected officials who were overthrown by the army in an internationally condemned seizure of power that sparked a civil strife.

Despite the plan’s failure so far, the ASEAN leaders decided to stick with it and continue to ban Myanmar’s generals and their appointed officials from the bloc’s high-level summit meetings — including the ongoing talks in Jakarta, an ASEAN statement said.

Harris told the regional bloc’s leaders that the US “will continue to press the regime to end the horrific violence, to release all those unjustly detained and to reestablish Myanmar’s inclusive democracy.”

She added that Washington will continue to support ASEAN’s peace plan for Myanmar.

Myanmar security forces have killed about 4,000 civilians and arrested 24,410 others since the army takeover, according to rights monitoring organization the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.