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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will go head to head with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi for their first meeting since Washington announced its sanctions on Chinese companies amid Beijing’s actions in the disputed waters. The summit between 10 South-east Asian countries comes days after Beijing launched ballistic missiles in the South China Sea as part of live-fire exercises.
China has claimed the resource-rich South China Sea which has been contested by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Before the summit began on Wednesday, Mr Pompeo said: “The Chinese Communist Party is engaged in a clear and intensifying pattern of bullying its neighbours.”
In an opening speech, Prime Minister of Vietnam Nguyen Xuan Phuc said: “The geopolitical environment, regional economy, including that of the East Sea [South China Sea], are experiencing several upheavals, influencing peace and stability.”
He added: “While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold in a complex manner, and our people and businesses continue to be outstretched by its repercussions, the regional geopolitical and geo-economic landscape, including the South China Sea, are witnessing growing volatilities that endanger peace and stability.”
Mr Nguyen’s speech comes as China, the US and other South-east Asian nations are in a tense standoff over actions in the South China Sea.
A senior South-east Asian diplomat told AFP the “power rivalry” between China and the US will dominate the discussions at the summit.
He said: “The United States and China will likely use the meetings as a platform to throw everything at each other.”
Mr Nguyen said smaller countries will “say their usual lines” and then hide when the US and China argue.
An expert on South-east Asian politics and security issues at the National War College in Washington, Dr Zachary Abuza, said progress over the disputed waters was unlikely.
Speaking to AFP, he said: “China has effectively used Covid-19 assistance and promises of vaccines – and trials in the Philippines and Indonesia – to really try to quash any diplomatic momentum towards a discussion of the South China Sea.”
The ten-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) began their annual talks on Wednesday.
The meetings were delayed by a month due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The summit is now being conducted over video link this week to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
In the first round of discussions Mr Wang, China’s Foreign Minister, blamed the US for the increased military tensions in the South China Sea.
He said Washington was the main driver of militarisation in the disputed waters.
The Chinese diplomat also said the US had engaged in smears of China’s actions in the area.
Mr Wang said: “Peace and stability are China’s greatest strategic interest in the South China Sea.”
Mr Pompeo has said the US sees all of China’s claims over the disputed territory as illegitimate.
Last month, China reportedly test-fired two missiles in the South China Sea during exercises.
China has pushed for the restart of negotiations with Asean on a code of conduct which aims to prevent armed conflict in the disputed waters.
Mr Wang said China’s “construction” activity in the disputed sea was being done to provide “public goods” for the area and ensuring the country’s security.
He said: “In the face of escalating military pressure from countries outside the region, we certainly have the basic self-protection rights of sovereign states.”
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