US meetings with ASEAN will include China concerns, but no call to pick sides

Owen Churchill, South China Morning Post

Posted at Aug 03 2021 09:29 PM

The United States will raise concerns about China’s human rights record and “coercion” in the South China Sea during ministerial meetings with Southeast Asian countries this week, yet will not force countries in the region to pick sides in the ongoing US-China spat, a senior US official said on Monday.

The Joe Biden administration’s offensive against Beijing continues, even as it hopes to engage China and other countries in Southeast and East Asia in efforts to combat climate change and solve regional security issues like unrest in Afghanistan and the post-coup crisis in Myanmar.

Addressing recent news that Myanmar’s military government intends to hold elections in two years, the senior US official said during a background briefing it was “clear that the Burmese junta is just stalling for time and wants to keep prolonging the calendar to its own advantage”.

“So, all the more reason why Asean has to engage on this,” said the official, referring to the 10-country alliance of which Myanmar is a member.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet every day this week with his counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as part of the Biden administration’s emerging focus on Washington’s engagement with and influence over the Indo-Pacific region.

A session on East Asia issues on Tuesday will also see a number of non-Asean countries – including China, Japan and South Korea – take part, said the senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity to preview the meetings.

Representing China will be foreign minister Wang Yi, the face of an increasingly assertive diplomatic corps that has used recent meetings with the US to push back forcefully against Washington’s claims of human rights abuse and other wrongdoings.

Wang will attend, via video links, the foreign ministers’ conferences regarding cooperation among Asean and East Asian countries from Tuesday to Friday, according to China’s foreign ministry.

“The cooperation in East Asia has maintained a sound momentum and strengthened regional countries’ efforts to combat Covid-19 and revitalise the economy. Meanwhile, the global pandemic resurgence and fluctuation as well as the flare-up of regional hotspot issues have added more complexity to East Asia cooperation,” said a readout issued by the ministry on Monday.

Beijing also appealed for “true multilateralism” and a resistance against “exclusive cliques or zero-sum games”, according to the readout. It also said China would do its best to meet the vaccine needs of regional countries and called on all parties to oppose politicisation and stigmatisation of the fight against Covid-19.

In tense talks last month, foreign vice-minister Xie Feng warned US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman that the US should not expect Beijing’s cooperation on matters such as climate change unless it took steps to cool tensions in other areas of the relationship.

In an apparent sign that the Biden administration is not ceding to those threats, US concerns around China’s “human rights violations” are set to take a prominent place in this week’s meetings, with a focus on Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet, said the US official, without elaborating on what specific outcomes or commitments the US hoped to secure from such discussions.

“We believe these atrocities are so serious they cannot be overlooked,” the official said, reiterating the US government’s determination that China’s treatment of ethnic minority groups in the country’s far west represents a “genocide”.

“We need to stay true to our principles and speak out in the face of these injustices, so that will be certainly reflected in [Blinken’s] interventions this week.”

Beijing, which routinely rejects all allegations of human rights violations in Xinjiang, has accused the US of “ganging up” with allies in efforts to contain China and forcing other countries to pick sides in the increasingly acrimonious stand-off between the two powers.

The Biden administration has denied such claims, and was “very attuned” to the fact that some Asean member states have themselves expressed a desire to stay out of bilateral tensions, said the senior administration official.

In May, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned that further deterioration of US-China relations could have disastrous secondary effects for other nations around the world. The city state’s reluctance to take sides in the stand-off is reflective of a region whose economies are inextricably linked with their powerful northern neighbour.

“We fully recognise that these countries have to have good relations with China,” the US official said. “It’s an important trading partner, it’s an important neighbour. It’s only logical that they would want to do that. So we want to … present the countries of Southeast Asia with options, and to show them that we’re acting in good faith and as a good, trustworthy partner that they can depend on.”

Additional reporting by Rachel Zhang


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