Japan has agreed in principle to supply Vietnam with military equipment, in a significant deepening of security cooperation between a key U.S. ally and a South China Sea claimant as their leaders met Monday. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc welcomed his Japanese counterpart Yoshihide Suga, who was making his first overseas trip since taking office last month -- a sign that Suga’s administration is prioritizing Southeast Asia. "The fact both sides basically agreed on the transfer of defense equipment and technologies is a major development step in cooperation,” Suga was quoted as saying by state-run VN Express after the two leaders held talks in Hanoi. “I believe defense and security cooperation between the two countries will continue to grow." While the defense export agreement has yet to be signed, it points the way for Japan to sell military equipment and technology to Vietnam. Until now, Japanese security assistance has been to civilian agencies like the Vietnamese coastguard, not its military. Japan, which has a pacifist constitution, has only just completed its first-ever foreign military sale of defense equipment. That was to another South China Sea claimant, the Philippines, in late-August, selling that country a mix of long-range and mobile air surveillance radars. Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, called Vietnam a “natural partner” for Japan. “It shares Japan's concern about China's maritime ambitions in East Asia,” he said. “Given that both Japan and Vietnam worry about the same potential opponent in the same domain, it makes sense for them to cooperate on maritime security. Japan does not have much experience with provision of security assistance, but it has a huge amount of experience with overseas development assistance that can be critical in this regard.” According to Reuters, Phuc told the news conference that, "Vietnam welcomes Japan, a global power, to continue to actively contribute to regional and global peace, stability and prosperity.” During Monday’s talks, the two sides discussed the South China Sea, and Suga also referred to it during in a speech to the Vietnam-Japan University, where he vowed to work “hand-in-hand” with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to establish the “rule of law in seas and oceans.” “Japan is strongly opposed to any actions that escalate tensions in the South China Sea. Japan has been consistently supporting the preservation of the rule of law in seas,” Suga said, also calling for peaceful resolution of disputes without resorting to force or coercion. China claims nearly the entirety of the South China Sea on the basis of “historic rights,” a position unsupported under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Six other Asian governments have territorial claims or maritime boundaries in the South China Sea that overlap with the sweeping claims of China. They are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia's exclusive economic zone. Suga travels to Indonesia on Wednesday. Although Japan is a close U.S. ally, which shares Washington’s concern over China’s assertive behavior, Cooper contrasted Tokyo’s approach to engaging Southeast Asia to that of America. “I think Japan is stepping up by playing a more proactive regional role since the United States is seen as somewhat distracted at the moment,” he said. “Washington has been playing bad cop with Beijing, but Tokyo can play good cop in Southeast Asia by highlighting both its development assistance and its investment across the region.” China has not responded officially to the announcement of heightened Japan-Vietnam defense ties. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi finished a tour of five Southeast Asian countries – Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand - on Friday. Alexander Vuving, a professor with the Hawaii-based Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, believes China views Vietnam as something of a lost cause for its diplomatic initiatives in the region. “The goal of Wang Yi's trip is to influence the Southeast Asian hosts, particularly in the conclusion of the negotiations for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea,” he said. The code is a proposed blueprint, currently being hashed out between ASEAN and China, that would govern behavior between competing claimants in the South China Sea. China hopes for negotiations to be concluded in 2021. “The countries Wang is visiting this month include most of the swing states in ASEAN regarding the [Code of Conduct], while Vietnam is not,” Vuving said. “Vietnam is seen by China as the bulwark against Chinese domination of the South China Sea. I think China hopes to persuade these countries to swing closer to China's version of the [Code of Conduct], as well as to veer closer to the Chinese side in the larger strategic competition with the United States.”
The Philippines’ top diplomat assured lawmakers in Manila on Monday that a code of conduct being negotiated between Southeast Asian nations and Beijing would not keep Western powers out of the South China Sea. Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. delivered the message during congressional budget deliberations, days after China indirectly called on the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to resist U.S. interference in the contested waterway. “I can swear to you: Western powers will be in the South China Sea,” Locsin told Congress. “We believe in the balance of power, that the freedom of Filipino people depends on the balance of power in the South China Sea. “China’s demand to exclude Western powers from the South China Sea – that I will never allow,” Locsin said. “The Western powers must be present in the South China Sea as a balancer.” Locsin’s statement was a rebuke of the Chinese embassy’s call last week when it urged Southeast Asian nations to resist U.S. influence as they try to establish a Code of Conduct in the maritime region. The code would lay out guidelines for how territorial claimants to the sea must behave. “A certain country outside the region is bent on interfering in the disputes in the South China Sea and the COC [Code of Conduct] consultations to serve its own geopolitical agenda. How to resist the interference is crucial for pushing the future consultation of COC,” China’s embassy in Manila said in a statement without identifying the rival superpower by name. Locsin, in a separate statement on Twitter, responded by saying that the COC being developed was something everyone could agree on, “friends and enemies alike.” ASEAN and China have been negotiating a COC for nearly two decades. In 2002, the regional bloc and Beijing signed a Declaration of Conduct in which they expressed their willingness to settle disputes in the sea peacefully. Since then, Beijing has claimed ownership over nearly the entire South China Sea, including areas that encroach on the exclusive economic zones of other countries, citing historical rights and its so-called Nine-Dash Line boundary that appears on Chinese maritime maps. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague struck down China’s claims after the Philippines sought international intervention because Beijing effectively seized control of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea in 2012. Apart from China and the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, and Taiwan have overlapping claims in the maritime region. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, however, has chosen to build up relations with China and ignored the ruling. US rejects China claims Tensions between China and the United States have been on the rise as Washington has rejected Beijing’s claims in the region. Last week, U.S. Assistant State Secretary David Stilwell accused China of bullying Southeast Asian nations into choosing between Beijing and Washington. “We are, though, insisting that countries be allowed to choose their own sovereignty, things that allow them to continue in ways that they see fit. And if you look at the record, if you look at the bullying behavior we’ve seen in the South China Sea and elsewhere … the Chinese are forcing a choice,” Stilwell told reporters on Sept. 15. “[Y]ou will note that the United States has maintained its presence in the region and demonstrated our resolve to prevent unwelcome and certainly unhelpful military adventurism.” Meanwhile, a defense analyst at an NGO think tank in the U.S. told the South China Morning Post (SCMP) that the Philippines was significant because of Manila’s standing as Washington’s only treaty ally with “direct involvement in the South China Sea disputes.” Derek Grossman, a defense analyst with the Rand Corp., pointed to the importance of the U.S. having access to military bases in the Philippines. The relationship with Manila gives the U.S. “a power projection point that is in the immediate vicinity of the South China Sea that would be extremely valuable in a future conflict,” Grossman told SCMP in an article published Monday. “The U.S. could manage without access to Philippine bases, but its power projection into the South China Sea would become more difficult and perhaps less rapid.” Kang Lin, a research fellow at China’s Hainan University, told SCMP that Chinese leaders nurtured their relationship with Rodrigo Duterte because of Manila’s long-standing relationship with Washington. Since Duterte took office in June 2016, China and the Philippines have agreed to investments valued at billions of dollars and have taken steps to ease South China Sea tensions, according to Kang. “When disputes over fishing or oil exploration rights have broken out between rival claimants in the disputed waterway, the Philippines has played a key role in helping to reduce the pressure on China,” Kang said. “It is very important to Beijing’s South China Sea strategy.” Reported by BenarNews,an RFA-affiliated online news service.
China called on Southeast Asian countries Thursday to resist “interference” from the United States in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, over which Washington has been ratcheting up diplomatic pressure lately. Without identifying the U.S. by name, a statement from the Chinese embassy in Manila clearly took aim at recent rhetorical actions by the rival superpower on the issue of the contested waterway. “[A] certain country outside the region is bent on interfering in the disputes in the South China Sea and the COC [Code of Conduct] consultations to serve its own geopolitical agenda. How to resist the interference is crucial for pushing forward the future consultations of COC,” the statement said. For nearly two decades, China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been negotiating a Code of Conduct, which would lay out guidelines for how claimants in the sea must behave. In 2002, member-states from the bloc and China signed a Declaration of Conduct in which they expressed their willingness to settle disputes in the maritime region peacefully. During a meeting with his counterparts from the Philippines and other ASEAN countries last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Washington insisted on the rule of law and respect for sovereignty in the South China Sea, where “Beijing has pursued aggressive campaigns of coercion and environmental devastation.” On Tuesday, David Stilwell, the American assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, criticized China for its “bullying behavior” and “forcing” nations in the region into making a choice over the waterway, where Beijing has been building artificial islands and militarizing atolls that it claims there. In its statement, China reiterated its commitment to maintaining peace in the maritime region where it has disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. China also expressed its appreciation for Manila’s commitment to pushing the negotiations on the COC forward, adding it hoped they would be “finalized at the earliest.” China's claims disputed Citing historical rights and the controversial Nine-Dash Line boundary that appears on Chinese maritime maps, Beijing has claimed ownership over the entire South China Sea, including in areas that effectively encroach on the exclusive economic zones of other countries. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague struck down China’s claims. The Philippines had gone to court to seek international intervention after Beijing effectively seized control of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea in 2012. On Thursday, Philippine government officials did not immediately respond to requests from BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, for comment on the statement issued by the Chinese embassy. However, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. did comment via Twitter on the ongoing negotiations over the Code of Conduct. “China has my word on that and it will be a COC with which the rest of the world will be totally comfortable, friends and enemies alike,” Locsin said in a tweet Thursday. Speaking at the ASEAN Regional Forum last week, Manila’s top diplomat said that the Philippines would “push as hard as it can for the conclusion of [an] effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.” The Philippine government, Locsin said then, hoped to “make substantial headway” on the negotiations for a draft code before the chairmanship of the talks moves to Myanmar next year. Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday said China’s state-owned companies engage in predatory business practices in the Mekong River region and the Chinese Communist Party is responsible for much of the boom in trafficking of persons, drugs and wildlife there. The new U.S.-Mekong Partnership launched Friday will help combat these transnational crimes and will strengthen water security for partner countries where China’s manipulation of the river has exacerbated a drought, he said. The U.S. is “concerned about infrastructure-linked debt and the predatory and opaque business practices of Beijing’s state-owned actors, such as China Communications Construction Co. (CCCC),” Pompeo said in a statement. Last month, a senior State Department official also named CCCC when he said upstream damming pursued by Beijing in the Mekong River has been done in “a completely nontransparent and non-consultative way.” “And there is a – actually a specific CCCC angle to the Mekong environmental concern story given CCCC’s role in would-be Chinese plans to blast and dredge the Mekong River, which could have potentially catastrophic effects on the downstream communities, the scores of millions of people whose livelihoods rely on the Mekong,” the official who was not named said during a special briefing. On Monday, Pompeo also said companies and groups associated with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are linked to human and narcotics trafficking in the Mekong region. His statement did not provide evidence to support the allegation. “Concerning also is the boom in trafficking of persons, drugs and wildlife, much of which emanates from organizations, companies and special economic zones linked to the CCP.” Pompeo also said the CCP is withholding Mekong water, adding downstream countries must hold it accountable by asking it to share water data through the Mekong River Commission. “The CCP’s unilateral decisions to withhold water upstream have exacerbated an historic drought,” he said. “We encourage countries of the Mekong region to hold the CCP accountable to its pledge to share its water data. That data should be public. It should be released year-round. It should include water and water-related data, as well as land use, and dam construction and operation data.” U.S. pledges $154 million to Mekong region Countries of the Mekong – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam – “deserve good partners,” Pompeo said. The U.S. has pledged a total of $156.4 million for a host of initiatives under the U.S.-Mekong Partnership. These include $52 million to support COVID-19 recovery, $55 million to counter transnational crime, $33 million to develop energy markets under Asia EDGE (Enhancing Development and Growth through Energy), $6.6 million to improving energy infrastructure and markets in the Mekong region, and $2 million to counter trafficking in persons. These initiatives were announced Friday at the first U.S.-Mekong Partnership Ministerial Meeting held to launch the partnership. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E. Biegun was the U.S. representative at the virtual meeting. “The United States is committed to supporting the resilience and autonomy of countries in the Mekong region and will work with all partners who share our principled, transparent approach,” State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement after the meeting. Pompeo said on Monday that the U.S. will also work closely “with partners like Japan, Australia, South Korea, India, and other good friends of the Mekong.” The partnership’s launch Friday coincided with last week’s series of meetings at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ministerial summit. Pompeo on Friday reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to Southeast Asia and ASEAN and accused China of “aggression” in the South China Sea. “We stand with our ASEAN partners as we insist on the rule of law and respect for sovereignty in the South China Sea, where Beijing has pursued aggressive campaigns of coercion and environmental devastation,” Pompeo said in a statement released during the summit. On Monday, Pompeo said the U.S.-Mekong Partnership “is an integral part of our Indo-Pacific vision and our strategic partnership with ASEAN.” Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday urged Southeast Asian countries to reconsider business deals with the 24 Chinese companies and individuals that Washington sanctioned last month for their roles in constructing Beijing’s artificial islands in the South China Sea. The Chinese state-owned companies strong-arm coastal Southeast Asian nations in the disputed waterway and these countries need to actively preserve territorial integrity, Pompeo said at an online meeting with foreign ministers from the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). “Reconsider business dealings with the very state-owned companies that bully ASEAN coastal states in the South China Sea,” said the top American diplomat at the annual meeting “Don’t just speak up, but act. … Don’t let the Chinese Communist Party walk over us and our people.” Pompeo further said that China doesn’t respect values enshrined in the ASEAN charter, while the U.S. does support Southeast Asian nations’ sovereignty and growth. “Beijing doesn’t respect the fundamental democratic values of those enshrined in the ASEAN charter: independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and national identity. Today, I say keep going,” Pompeo said. “You should have confidence that America will be here in friendship to help you just as we have been for the last three and a half years.” As many as 24 Chinese firms and individuals were placed on a list of sanctions by the U.S. on Aug. 26 for what Washington said is their involvement in reclamation activities in the South China Sea. Pompeo said last month that the sanctioned firms and individuals were involved in China’s extensive dredging campaign in the waterway. Notably, ASEAN member the Philippines said earlier this month it won’t cut business ties with the Chinese firms Washington has blacklisted. The Philippine government said it would work with these Chinese companies because it is in the “national interest” to complete flagship infrastructure projects in the country involving these firms, said Harry Roque, spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte. “We are not a vassal state of any foreign power and we will pursue our national interest,” Roque said. “[T]he president was clear, he will not follow the directive of the Americans because we are a free and independent country, and we need Chinese investments.” Rising tensions Beijing, for its part, accused the U.S. of continuing to interfere in the South China Sea. On Wednesday, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the U.S. the “biggest driver of militarization of the South China Sea,” Chinese media reported. “The United States is becoming the most dangerous factor damaging peace in the South China Sea,” Wang said at the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. “Peace and stability are China’s greatest strategic interest in the South China Sea,” he said, adding that those attributes were the common strategic aspiration of China and ASEAN. “China hopes that countries outside the region, including the United States, will fully respect the wishes and expectations of countries in the region, instead of creating tension and seeking profit from it.” China claims most of the South China Sea, saying it has “historic rights” to the waterway, where it has been building military installations and artificial islands as Beijing expands the footprint of its armed forces in the contested maritime region. China’s claims are demarcated by a so-called nine-dash line that appears on Chinese maps. Tensions in the region have been rising since Pompeo’s declaration in July that Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea are illegal. Washington, he said at the time, stands with its Southeast Asian allies “in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources.” In addition to China and Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have territorial claims in the South China Sea. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone. Many ASEAN members say they are caught in the middle of the spat between Beijing and Washington. On Wednesday, the opening day of the ASEAN meeting, Indonesia and Vietnam said the South China Sea dispute threatens regional stability and that countries should settle the acrimonious row by adhering to international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS. Still, on Thursday, Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said the ASEAN-U.S. relationship “has brought about mutual benefit to both sides,” according to the Associated Press. “The U.S. role and contribution to maintaining peace, stability, and security in the region are encouraged,” he said. ASEAN Joint Communique The joint communique of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting, released Thursday, also highlights the South China Sea issue. The consensus document from the summit, held Wednesday, expresses concern over increased tensions in the disputed waters and affirms the need for freedom of navigation and overflight. “We emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states,” the communique states. “We further reaffirmed the need to pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS.” China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea were struck down in a landmark 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling, as judges found that China’s claims didn’t hold up under UNCLOS. ASEAN member states such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines have all emphasized UNCLOS and the 2016 ruling when discussing the South China Sea issue in recent months. Meanwhile, this year’s communique nearly didn’t mention UNCLOS, said Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the Britain and Singapore-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. “There was an early proposal from Laos to remove any reference to UNCLOS, and that was rejected by ASEAN,” Connelly told Radio Free Asia, a sister entity of BenarNews. He cited an earlier negotiating text he had knowledge of, and said there was a disagreement over the wording around UNCLOS that briefly held up the communique. Code of Conduct tussle This year’s joint communique also lauded the “progress of substantive negotiations toward the early conclusion of an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (CoC) consistent with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS, within a mutually agreed timeline.” In 2002, ASEAN member-states signed a Declaration of Conduct with China, expressing their willingness to peacefully settle disputes over the South China Sea. Close to two decades later, the group and China have not been able to agree on a follow-on document – called the Code of Conduct, or CoC – that would clearly set out guidelines for how claimants in the South China Sea must behave. Connelly said some ASEAN members were unhappy with the communique’s optimistic statement on the CoC. “China put a lot of pressure on ASEAN member-states to make a statement about progress on the CoC, even though there hasn’t been any progress since last year,” Connelly said. “If you read between the lines you can see some dissatisfaction among member-states on the lack of progress.” While the communique does not mention when negotiations on the CoC will resume, Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin, Jr. said during the ASEAN meeting on Wednesday that talks would restart “no later than” November, Bloomberg News reported. “ASEAN is allowing China to save some face but making it very clear that it’s unhappy about the current state of affairs,” Connelly said. Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to Southeast Asia and accused China of “aggression” in the South China Sea and manipulating the flow of the Mekong River in a time of drought. Touting U.S. investment in the region and support for the COVID-19 response of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Pompeo said Washington will speak out in the face of China’s “threats to sovereign nations’ ability to make free choices.” “We stand with our ASEAN partners as we insist on the rule of law and respect for sovereignty in the South China Sea, where Beijing has pursued aggressive campaigns of coercion and environmental devastation,” Pompeo said in a statement released during a summit of top ASEAN diplomats held online this week and hosted by Vietnam. The top U.S. diplomat accused China of exacerbating the drought in nations downstream on the Mekong River. “We stand for transparency and respect in the Mekong region, where the CCP [Chinese Communist party] has abetted arms and narcotics trafficking and unilaterally manipulated upstream dams, exacerbating an historic drought,” Pompeo said. His statement did not provide evidence to support the allegation of the CCP aiding weapons and drugs smuggling. Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam have been grappling with variable water flow on the Mekong that supports the livelihoods of tens of millions of people. While poor rains have caused the drought, environmentalists say dams that China has constructed on the upper reaches of the river have worsened the situation. Rising tensions Pompeo’s rhetoric underscores the rapid deterioration in U.S.-China relations on a raft of issues in recent months, including trade, the status of Hong Kong, the plight of Uyghur Muslims and China’s assertion of “historic rights” to most of the disputed South China Sea. On Thursday, Pompeo had urged Southeast Asian countries to reconsider business deals with the 24 Chinese companies that Washington sanctioned last month for their roles in constructing Beijing’s artificial islands in the South China Sea. In recent years, Beijing has undertaken major reclamation of disputed land features in the Paracel and Spratly island chains. ASEAN nations Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines also have territorial claims in the South China Sea and seek to use resources in areas that China claims for itself. Beijing further claims parts of that sea overlapping the exclusive economic zone of Indonesia, the largest ASEAN member. For its part, Beijing this week accused the U.S. of interference in the region’s affairs. On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the U.S. the “biggest driver of militarization of the South China Sea,” Chinese media reported. “The United States is becoming the most dangerous factor damaging peace in the South China Sea,” Wang said at the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. Southeast Asian nations are uneasy about being caught in the war of words between the U.S. and China. In the ASEAN joint communique made public on Thursday, the bloc, which operates by consensus, expressed concern over increased tensions in the South China Sea and called for resolution of disputes in accordance with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS. A day before that, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told reporters that the group’s countries did not want to “get caught up in the rivalry between major powers.” Vietnam, too, said on Wednesday that the dispute threatens regional stability and that countries should settle the acrimonious row by adhering to international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS. While Friday’s toughly worded statement from the U.S. was issued by Pompeo, the State Department public schedule showed that his deputy, Stephen Biegun, was the leading U.S. delegate at the ASEAN virtual meetings that day. Pompeo was traveling to the Middle East to attend the opening of Afghan peace talks. The ASEAN summit ends Saturday after the ASEAN Regional Forum on peace and security. The 27-member forum includes 10 ASEAN states, India, Japan, China, the U.S., Russia and the European Union. Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.