Disputes over South China Sea, North Korean missiles cast shadow on ASEAN summits

Disputes over South China Sea, North Korean missiles cast shadow on ASEAN summits

Southeast Asian leaders were holding meetings with top US, Chinese and Japanese officials in Indonesia on Wednesday, where big power rivalries and regional issues from the South China Sea to North Korean missiles were on the table.

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The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was holding separate summits with China, Japan, South Korea, the United States and Canada, providing an arena for big powers to lobby the bloc.

US Vice President Kamala Harris is attending in place of President Joe Biden, while Chinese Premier Li Qiang is taking part instead of President Xi Jinping.

“We seek common ground while setting aside differences. We both have a relentless pursuit of peace,” Li said in opening remarks at the ASEAN-China summit.

“As long as we keep to the right path, no matter what storm may come, China-ASEAN cooperation will be as firm as ever… against all odds.”

Beijing has a long-running dispute with several Southeast Asian nations over the South China Sea. © Andy Wong, pool / AFP

Wednesday’s meetings will be more regional in scope before an 18-member East Asia Summit on Thursday to be attended by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, where broader geopolitical issues are expected to top the agenda.

The Russian embassy in Indonesia posted an image of Lavrov arriving in Jakarta on Wednesday.

“At both summits, the vice president will underscore the United States’ enduring commitment to the Indo-Pacific generally and to ASEAN centrality specifically,” US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters Tuesday, using another term for the Asia-Pacific region.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol were attending both days of meetings.

They will meet with Li at an ASEAN plus three summit where a row between China and Japan over the release of treated wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear plant could again come to the fore.

Host Indonesia told an ASEAN leaders’ summit on Tuesday that the bloc would not become a proxy for big power competition as US-China tensions continue to flare over Taiwan, the South China Sea and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The roundtable including Lavrov and Harris would be the first high-level US-Russia encounter since a foreign ministers’ meeting in Jakarta in July, where US and European officials rounded on Moscow’s top diplomat over the Ukraine conflict.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has arrived in Indonesia, according to the Moscow's embassy there.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has arrived in Indonesia, according to the Moscow’s embassy there. © Maxim Shemetov, pool / AFP / file

A Southeast Asian diplomat present at Wednesday’s meetings told AFP they would conclude with joint statements about closer diplomatic, economic and food security collaboration between the powers and ASEAN.

Li was scheduled on Wednesday to visit a Beijing-funded high-speed rail project between Jakarta and the Javan city of Bandung, Indonesian officials said.

On Thursday ASEAN leaders will host summits with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

Albanese addressed a regional forum in Jakarta on Wednesday where he said Canberra sought closer engagement and economic ties with Southeast Asian nations.

‘Severest consequences’

Other regional issues such as North Korea’s ballistic missile launches are also expected to feature prominently.

South Korea’s Yoon, in an interview with Indonesian newspaper Kompas on Tuesday, said he would push for ASEAN to “join forces” with Seoul to counter Pyongyang’s nuclear threats.

© John Saeki, AFP

Myanmar will also be a major issue at the summits with China — a key diplomatic ally of the junta.

On Tuesday, Southeast Asian leaders strongly condemned the violence and attacks on civilians in Myanmar, directly blaming the junta.

China also upset several ASEAN members last week when it released a new official map claiming sovereignty over the majority of the South China Sea.

It sparked sharp rebukes from across the region, including Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Japan said late Tuesday it had lodged a “strong protest” against Beijing over the map and called for its retraction, government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno told a briefing.

The Southeast Asian diplomat who spoke to AFP said joint statements from the meetings will “contain references to the South China Sea and Myanmar”.

In a draft ASEAN chair statement to be issued this week seen by AFP, leaders were to express concern about “land reclamations, activities, serious incidents” in the waterway.

But to avoid angering Beijing, experts said ASEAN leaders were unlikely to confront Li.

“I predict… the leaders will avoid discussing confrontational issues such as China’s new map,” Aleksius Jemadu, a foreign affairs expert at Indonesia’s Pelita Harapan University, told AFP.

“They won’t risk the relationship with big powers.”