U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin highlighted what he called China’s unlawful behavior in the South China Sea, while his Chinese counterpart said Beijing was determined to safeguard its core interests, at an ASEAN-hosted meeting on Wednesday.
Defense officials from the 10-member Association of the Southeast Asian Nations met virtually with counterparts from eight countries to discuss maritime security and other issues at the annual forum known as the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) Plus.
In remarks to the gathering, Austin described the American vision for the Indo-Pacific region, “underscoring the importance of allies and partners, shared principles, and multilateral approaches to security challenges,” according to a statement issued by the Pentagon.
“He also highlighted unlawful PRC behavior in the South China Sea,” the statement said.
The annual gathering unfolded as an American aircraft carrier group conducted a “routine mission” in the South China Sea, the U.S. Navy said on Tuesday, and amid sharpening tensions over territorial competition in the strategic waterway.
Meanwhile, at the northern end of the South China Sea, Taiwan complained on Tuesday that 28 Chinese Air Force planes had entered its air defense identification zone, in what Taipei said was the largest in a recent series of provocative military maneuvers near the island.
China regards self-ruled Taiwan as a renegade province waiting to be reunited with the mainland. Taiwan says it is an independent state formally named the Republic of China.
A statement issued in Beijing on Wednesday said Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe told the ADMM Plus meeting that China understood and respected the legitimate security concerns of other countries.
“China’s national interests must also be fully respected and safeguarded,” it quoted him as saying. “On issues related to Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the South China Sea, China is determined to safeguard the country’s core interests.”
In early June, Malaysia said that 16 Chinese military planes had flown in formation across its maritime airspace above South China Sea waters north of Borneo Island, and come close to violating its territorial airspace. China said the planes were carrying out “routine flight activity.”
In April, Vietnam denounced China’s unilateral imposition of an annual fishing ban in the South China Sea. Vietnam said the ban violated its sovereignty over the Paracel Islands, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea agreed to in 2003.
Elsewhere, Beijing and Manila have been involved in a standoff since March when the Philippines said it had detected more than 200 ships manned by Chinese maritime militia at Whitsun Reef, in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Beijing claims that the reef is part of its “Nansha Islands” – China’s name for the Spratly Islands. Since then, China has maintained a presence in Philippine waters, prompting Manila to file multiple diplomatic protests with Beijing.
At the meeting on Wednesday, some participants also raised concerns about China’s new coast guard law, according to the Philippines.
“On the South China Sea, some Plus countries expressed concern on the ambiguous application of the Chinese Coast Guard Law (CGL), while stressing the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight and the early conclusion of a substantive Code of Conduct,” the Philippine Department of National Defense said in a statement.
“Plus countries” refer to non-ASEAN summit participants, which are Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the United States.
The law, adopted in late January, states that China’s coastguard and other maritime law enforcement agencies may use small arms, such as rifles, or shipborne-weapons such as deck-mounted guns, when handling foreign ships infringing upon waters that China claims as its own.
Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi urged all parties to make efforts to resolve maritime disputes peacefully and abide by international law, according to a statement released by his ministry.
“He pointed out that there are continued attempts to change the status quo by coercion in the East China Sea and the South China Sea,” the statement said, in an apparent reference to China.
Kishi, the statement said, underscored that the China’s coast guard law “should never undermine the legitimate interests of relevant countries.”
China and Japan have a long-running territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands, which China calls the Diaoyu Dao. The uninhabited islets sit in the deep south of the East China Sea and are a recurring flashpoint between the two countries.
China has asserted what it claims is its jurisdiction through deployments of its coast guard and navy, both of which constitute the largest fleets of their kind in the world, according to the 2020 China Military Power Report by the U.S. Department of Defense.
Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea region as its own, while the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan have their own territorial claims.
Indonesia does not regard itself as a party to territorial disputes over the South China Sea, but Beijing claims historic rights to parts of the maritime region that overlap Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
China and ASEAN have undertaken protracted negotiations for a code of conduct (CoC) that would govern behavior between claimants in the South China Sea.
Last week, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi called on ASEAN and China to immediately resume the negotiations, calling the progress “very slow”.
Malaysian Defense Minister Ismail Sabri, for his part on Wednesday, called on the parties in the South China Sea “to be more moderate in their behavior.”
Ismail also stressed that “Malaysia will not compromise on its national security and sovereignty,” said a statement issued by his office.
Commenting on the territorial competition, Teuku Rezasyah, a lecturer in international relations at Padjadjaran University in Bandung, Indonesia, said that China was not contributing to security in the region.
“It is rather difficult to pinpoint which party is good or bad. But right now, the U.S. and its allies are not the parties that are causing problems in ASEAN. China, despite its economic influence, has no contribution to security in the region,” Rezasyah told BenarNews.
Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an analyst at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), said the South China Sea dispute was unlikely to be solved any time soon.
“I don’t think this issue will really be resolved, because the situation has become a zero-sum game, and I don’t think anyone is in the mood for a compromise,” Dewi told BenarNews.
Dewi said a code of conduct on the South China Sea would prevent the situation from deteriorating into conflict.
“The most possible thing to do now is to manage potential conflict so as not to create open friction. For this reason, COC is very important for ASEAN,” she said.
Scant mention of Myanmar
Addressing Wednesday’s summit, Lloyd, the U.S. defense chief, also called on the Myanmar military to “change course,” the Pentagon statement said, referring to the Feb. 1 coup in that country and the subsequent killing of hundreds of civilians.
Burmese security forces have killed at least 863 people in violent crackdowns on mass anti-coup protests and detained, charged, or sentenced 4,880 since Feb. 1, according to the Thailand-based rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
The coup was reportedly discussed Wednesday, and at a gathering the day before of ASEAN defense chiefs, attended by General Mya Tun Oo of Myanmar, the junta-appointed defense minister.
Joint statements for the meetings, which were posted on the website of Singapore’s Ministry of Defense, did not mention the crisis in Myanmar.
Kate Beddall in Washington, Ronna Nirmala in Jakarta, Pimuk Rakkanam in Bangkok, Jason Gutierrez in Manila and Muzliza Mustafa in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.