WASHINGTON, D.C.: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will seek talks with Southeast Asian nations next week to push back on China, a top aide said Friday.
Blinken will travel to Jakarta for talks with foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), flying straight from Lithuania where he will join President Joe Biden at a NATO (National Alliance Treaty Organization) summit focused on Ukraine.
Blinken last month paid a rare visit to Beijing in a bid to keep high tensions in check. But the United States says it has also seen little change in policy by China, which has been asserting itself in the dispute-rife South China Sea.
“We have seen an upward trend of unhelpful and coercive and irresponsible Chinese actions in the South China Sea,” Daniel Kritenbrink, the top US diplomat for East Asia, told reporters.
He said that the United States shared the view of Southeast Asian nations on unimpeded freedom of navigation in the strategic waterway, where China has made sweeping claims despite protests from Vietnam, the Philippines and other nations.
The United States and Asean seek to “push back on behavior that runs counter to that vision and to those principles, including the many irresponsible acts that we've seen carried out by China over the last several years and in the last several weeks,” he said.
Blinken's talks with Asean member nations come amid renewed aggression by China in the West Philippine Sea, where dozens of its vessels were spotted swarming off Iroquois Reef in the West Philippine Sea, which is well within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ), the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) reported on Friday.
Iroquois Reef is located south of Recto Bank and is believed to hold immense oil reserves.
Before this, Chinese ships were also reported to have “blocked” the entry of Philippine vessels into Ayungin Shoal, which is within the Philippines EEZ, where Filipino troops are camped out. China's Foreign Ministry Office said it was the Philippines that “intruded” and was merely safeguarding its territory.
US Ambassador to the Philippines MaryKay Carlson, in a statement, called China's maneuvers “unprofessional,” while Defense Chief Lloyd James Austin 3rd said they were “coercive and risky operational behavior” and voiced his concern during a telephone conversation with Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr.
In a handout issued by the US Defense Department, Austin highlighted the ironclad alliance commitment of the US with the Philippines and reiterated that the Mutual Defense Treaty extends to Philippine public vessels, aircraft and armed forces — to include those of its Coast Guard — in the Pacific, including anywhere in the West Philippine Sea.
The defense secretaries also reaffirmed their commitment to uphold rules-based order and support the livelihoods of local Philippine communities and other claimant states that seek to conduct lawful maritime activities in the West Philippine Sea, consistent with the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal Ruling.
Turmoil in Myanmar
The Asean talks are expected to also take up the turmoil in Myanmar, where the military ousted the elected government in February 2021 and launched a crackdown that local monitors say has killed more than 3,600 civilians.
Myanmar has been suspended from top-level Asean summits due to its failure to implement a five-point peace plan agreed on two years ago, although Thailand's outgoing army-backed government triggered controversy by recently inviting the junta's top diplomat for talks.
Without criticizing Thailand, Kritenbrink said the United States expected the bloc to “continue to downgrade Myanmar's representation in the Asean ministerials.”
“We also look forward to finding ways to increase pressure on the regime to compel the regime to end its violence and return to a path of democracy,” he said.
US officials said it was too early to say whom Blinken would meet individually in Jakarta, where visitors include Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Blinken has refused most contact with Lavrov since the invasion of Ukraine, although they met briefly at Group of 20 talks in March in New Delhi.
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