BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei – The United States, China and Japan squared off over maritime security at a regional summit on Wednesday, with U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida taking part in the online meeting for the first time since they took office.
The virtual gathering of the East Asia Summit took place as tensions between the United States and China have been intensifying recently over several issues in the Asia-Pacific region, such as the South and East China seas and the Taiwan Strait.
Biden’s participation in the meeting underscored that the United States has been keen to regain its influence in the region, while China has been trying to bolster relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Donald Trump, Biden’s predecessor who was absent from the regional summit for the fourth straight year during his tenure, drew criticism for his perceived lack of interest in Southeast Asia.
Noting the “enduring” U.S. commitment to the Indo-Pacific, Biden expressed concern over “threats” to the international rules-based order and vowed to stand with allies and partners in support of democracy, human rights, rule of law and freedom of the seas, the White House said.
The United States will explore with partners “the development of an Indo-Pacific economic framework” which would define their “shared objectives” around trade facilitation, standards for the digital economy and technology, supply chain resiliency, clean energy, infrastructure and other areas, Biden was quoted as saying.
Following the summit, Kishida, who became prime minister in early October, told reporters that he conveyed Japan’s “firm stance” on maritime security in the South and East China seas to leaders of other countries.
Kishida added that he also touched on the issues of China’s alleged human rights abuses against the Muslim Uyghur minority in the far-western Xinjiang region, the crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong and the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as he attended a series of ASEAN-related summits the same day.
Claiming sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, Beijing has rapidly built artificial islands with military infrastructure in the maritime area.
China has conflicting territorial claims with four ASEAN members — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — as well as with Taiwan over the Taiwan Strait, a strategic waterway through which more than one-third of global trade passes.
Beijing also claims the Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea administered by Japan. China has frequently sent its coast guard ships near the chain of islets, which it calls Diaoyu.
According to the Japanese government, some countries expressed concerns during the meeting over the situation in the South China Sea as well as human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
The crisis in Myanmar, in which political confusion has been lingering since the military ousted the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi in the February coup, was also apparently one of the major agenda items at the East Asia Summit.
The East Asia Summit comprises ASEAN — which groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the United States.
Myanmar’s military leader, however, was excluded from the meeting after the junta refused to allow an ASEAN special envoy to meet with Suu Kyi and other opposition figures.
At the summit, Kishida expressed his eagerness to work toward addressing the situation in Myanmar, such as through the provision of humanitarian assistance.
China was represented by Premier Li Keqiang during the meeting.
As for Taiwan, Biden late last week said the United States is committed to defending the self-ruled democratic island if China mounts an attack on it, apparently contradicting Washington’s long-standing policy to keep its stance on the matter ambiguous.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin swiftly reacted to Biden’s remarks, saying, “No one should underestimate the Chinese people’s strong determination, firm will and strong ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
China and Taiwan have been governed separately since they split in 1949 as the result of a civil war.
Relations have deteriorated since independence-leaning Tsai Ing-wen became Taiwan’s president in 2016. The mainland considers the island a renegade province.
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