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US, China square off on the South China Sea as Indonesia urges leaders to maintain peace

Leaders of the US and China met with ASEAN leaders in Jakarta amid heightened tensions in the region.

US, China square off on the South China Sea as Indonesia urges leaders to maintain peace

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, left, attends the East Asia Summit held on the sidelines of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/Pool Photo via AP)

JAKARTA: The world’s two biggest economies, the United States and China, squared off on the South China Sea issue at a meeting with Southeast Asian leaders on Thursday (Sep 9) while host Indonesia urged counterparts to maintain peace and avoid conflicts. 

During the annual East Asia Summit (EAS) held in Jakarta on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, Vice President Kamala Harris asserted that freedom of navigation and overflight must be respected in the hotly contested South China Sea. 

Mdm Harris, who attended the meeting on behalf of US President Joe Biden, also said all disputes must be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea which was ratified by more than 160 countries, including China. 

She also reaffirmed US support for the 2016 UN arbitral tribunal ruling, which ruled that China had no legal basis to claim areas in the sea worth over US$3 trillion worth of trade yearly as it carries one-third of global shipping.

“The Vice President also underscored the importance of the international rules-based order in preserving decades of peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific, while acknowledging the international community must address growing threats to that order,” read a statement from the White House.

It added that the vice president also raised concerns regarding “the grave human rights abuses being committed by the People’s Republic of China” during the EAS, which comprises the 10 ASEAN members and eight other dialogue partners, such as China and the US.

The US has often accused China of disregarding human rights in Xinjiang and as an abuser of religious freedom, among others. 

The ASEAN Summit and related meetings in Jakarta took place mere days after China’s ministry of natural resources issued the "China Standard Map Edition 2023", which claims large swathes of the disputed South China Sea plus an additional dash to the east of Taiwan, making it a “10-dash line map.

ASEAN members —  Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — also claim parts of the resource-rich sea, while Chinese boats have often clashed with Indonesian vessels in the latter’s North Natuna Sea which is on the edge of the South China Sea.

In his speech at the EAS meeting, China’s Premier Li Qiang reportedly pointed out that China and ASEAN countries are actively advancing consultations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

“Li Qiang also expressed hope that countries outside the region fully respect the efforts made by regional countries to negotiate the rules of the South China Sea and maintain peace and stability in the region,” reported CGTN, a Chinese state-run foreign-language news channel.

It added that Mr Li also urged the EAS to remain committed to its role and to play a greater part in helping to achieve long-term stability and lasting prosperity in the region, amid new challenges and new dynamics.

To do so, he said the EAS should focus on promoting development and energising regional growth, by “devoting more wisdom and strength” on advancing cooperation. 

Second, he said EAS countries should better play the role of strategic dialogue so as to enhance mutual understanding and trust among all parties.

Earlier on Wednesday, Mr Li had said major powers must keep their differences under control and avoid "a new Cold War", in a thinly veiled reference to the US.

"Disagreements and disputes may arise between countries due to misperceptions, diverging interests or external interferences," said Mr Li, who was making his maiden regional showing since taking the premier post in March this year

"To keep differences under control, what is essential now is to oppose picking sides, to oppose bloc confrontation and to oppose a new Cold War."

China has expressed concerns about the establishment of US-backed alliances since it is facing disputes with other countries. For example, Beijing is currently in a standoff with Manila over the South China Sea. 

Earlier this month, naval ships from the Philippines and the US carried out a joint sail in parts of the South China Sea, after the former and China clashed in the waters a few weeks ago.

Wrapping up the summit as host, Indonesian President Joko Widodo said on Thursday that fellow leaders, despite facing a difficult situation, managed to maintain peace and stability. 

“In the forums, I did, in fact, state that every leader present has an equally big responsibility not to create new conflicts, not to create new tensions.

“And at the same time, we also have the responsibility to lower heated tensions,” said Jokowi, as the president is popularly known. 

He added that leaders need to create space for dialogues to ease tensions and foster communication. 

“I can guarantee you, if we are unable to manage differences, we will be destroyed," he said.

Source: CNA/ks(kb)

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