The rivalry between the United States and China over influence in the Asia-Pacific region was on show Monday as the two superpowers traded barbs over freedom of navigation in the region’s seas.
The war of words took place at the annual summit of leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, hosted this year by Thailand. The meeting allows Southeast Asian leaders to deal as a bloc with the world’s major powers, leveraging their influence in making security and trade arrangements.
At the same time, the meeting serves as a showcase for the rivalry between the U.S. and China, which both seek to strengthen their clout in the geopolitically important region.
On Friday the two countries repeated familiar charges — Beijing accusing Washington of interfering in Asian affairs, and Washington accusing Beijing of violating the law of the sea and encroaching on the natural resources of other countries.
Washington, however, found itself handicapped as President Donald Trump did not attend the meeting, sending in his place neither Vice President Mike Pence or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but his recently appointed national security adviser, Robert O’Brien.
Other major powers sent their heads of government. Those attending as guests of ASEAN included Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
Washington’s diplomatic move was underlined when seven of the Southeast Asian leaders skipped an important meeting with O’Brien, sending instead their foreign ministers. Their action was technically appropriate in terms of diplomatic protocol for a meeting with O’Brien, who Trump anointed his “special envoy” to the meeting in Bangkok.
American officials, fearing a boycott, urged all Southeast Asian heads of state to attend Monday’s meeting. But ASEAN leaders decided to send only Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha as host, the Vietnamese prime minister as host of next year’s summit and the leader of Laos, who oversees ASEAN-U.S. relations, a Southeast Asian diplomat told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he lacked authorization to discuss the issue.
During the meeting, O’Brien read a letter from Trump, who invited ASEAN leaders to a “special summit” in the U.S. early next year.
O’Brien at a news conference denied that he regarded the meeting as a snub, saying he “only experienced very, very gracious and generous hospitality and meetings from all the leaders here, ASEAN and other leaders in the Indo-Pacific.” He declared that he “had a great set of meetings and didn’t feel like there was anything at all untoward.”
O’Brien spoke with a sharper edge when discussing one of ASEAN’s main concerns, China’s aggressive territorial claims over the South China Sea, a major concern of four Southeast Asian nations with competing claims — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Taiwan is also involved in a long-simmering territorial conflict in the busy waters, a key waterway for global commerce. Dwarfed by China’s military, rival claimant states have looked at the U.S. as a counterweight to the Asian powerhouse.
O’Brien took a swipe at China, saying Beijing was using intimidation to try to stop ASEAN nations from exploiting their offshore resources, blocking access to $2.5 trillion in oil and gas reserves alone.
China has long warned Washington not to interfere in territorial disputes it regards as a purely Asian issue. It opposes naval and aerial patrols by the U.S. and its allies in the disputed waters, but American forces have maintained their presence and continued “freedom of navigation” sail-bys designed to challenge China’s vast territorial claims.
Chinese Premier Li said he was confident that a regional code of maritime conduct that China is negotiating with ASEAN states could be concluded in three years.
Responding to a question about O’Brien’s comments, he told reporters: “Regretfully, while the tree desires tranquility, the wind keeps blowing. Some nonregional countries have done everything to make trouble and raise tensions. They want to impose their will on our countries.”
O’Brien delivered a retort to Li, saying, “We don’t believe that any country should just seal off massive portions of the Pacific Ocean and claim that their territorial waters like it’s a lake, like it’s a lake up in Lake Tahoe, an island in the middle of the U.S.”
Noting the U.S. heritage as a maritime trading nation, he told reporters that “international law allows us to go in international waters when we choose. And for the reasons that we chose. And so we don’t think that sailing the high seas in any way infringes on any other country.”
He stressed that China’s actions threatened to deprive Southeast Asian nations of the natural resources that rightfully belong to them.
“It’s against the rules. It’s not fair. It’s not right. And so the United States has never been shy about calling that out,” he said. “Now, that doesn’t mean we don’t want good relations with China. We want great relations with China.”
The other major issue tackled by ASEAN leaders resulted in progress after seven years of negotiations for a massive free trade deal called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. However, the initiative backed by China only won approval for now from 15 of the 16 nations involved, as India was not yet able to commit itself.
RCEP, which does not include the U.S., aims to level trade barriers between ASEAN members and six other countries in a bloc encompassing roughly a third of all global trade.