Bangkok—US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted Thursday that Washington was not asking Southeast Asian nations to “choose sides” between his country and rival power China, as he trailed a rebooted security and trade strategy at a Bangkok summit.
The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, a bitter trade war between the superpowers and open access to contested seas dominated talks between Pompeo and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the sidelines of a summit of Southeast Asia’s top diplomats.
Pompeo is tasked with reassuring Asian allies that the US remains a key player in the region as China builds up its military presence in disputed seas and airspace and cements its economic and political primacy across the region.
The rivalry between the two superpowers is framed by a trade war that has cramped global growth and seeded uncertainty across Asia’s economies.
Pompeo and Wang shook hands and smiled before the brief talks.
Both later played down the rifts between their nations, with Wang describing the meeting as a “deep communication” that “has helped to increase our mutual understanding.”
“There may be various kinds of issues and problems between China and the United States,” he said.
“But no matter how many problems.. we all need to sit down and continue to communicate.”
In short remarks, Pompeo later insisted the US was not forcing Southeast Asian nations to choose between the two big powers.
“Our engagement in this region has not been and will not be a zero-sum exercise,” he said. “Our interests simply naturally converge with yours to our mutual benefit.”
Among the tension points with China is the South China Sea, an area Beijing believes to be its orbit and outside the US sphere of influence.
China is accused of deploying warships, militarizing outposts and ramming fishing vessels in contested waters, one of the world’s key shipping routes and which the US is desperate to keep open.
Several rival Southeast Asian claimants to the sea say Beijing has used its military, economic and diplomatic heft to slow progress on a binding Code of Conduct in the flashpoint zone.
The US wants guarantees of open seas and has offered its support to several of the claimant nations in the face of Chinese aggression.
The administration of President Donald Trump, which pulled out from a massive Asia-Pacific trade pact, is pushing an “Indo-Pacific” strategy of bilateral commercial deals and security support for the region.
China rebuffs US intentions in the region and is driving through its own sweeping trade-pact for the region.
On Wednesday Wang described Southeast Asia as China’s “neighborhood” and in barely concealed warning to the US urged “non-regional countries” to not “sow distrust” in the area.
US-led efforts to tease North Korea into ending its nuclear ambitions were also covered in discussions, with Beijing’s leading diplomat welcoming the high-visibility summits between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un.
The Defense department said the Philippines will never give any of its positions in the West Philippine Sea as it continues to improve its existing facilities in Pag-asa Island, the country’s largest possession in the WPS.
“It must also be pointed out that the Philippines never gave up any of its positions in the WPS during the Duterte administration and, in fact, it is improving the existing facilities of its biggest island, Pag-asa, to accommodate more residents and personnel,” DND spokesman Arsenio Andolong said in a statement.
Andolong added the Philippines is always ready to defend our sovereignty and sovereign rights using whatever means available.
“Likewise, every able-bodied Filipino should be ready to fulfill his or her duty when the time comes,” the DND spokesperson said.
While saying that China may have an advantage in the South China Sea due to its existing structures constructed on its artificial islands which it has hardened and militarized, Andolong said this is still only a small part of the disputed waterway.
“Although several claimant countries are occupying features in the South China Sea, not one of them has complete and sole control over that entire body of water,” the DND spokesman added.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, ratified in 1982 by many countries including the Philippines and China, is the legal basis of the country’s claim of sovereign rights over its exclusive economic zone.
This was further affirmed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration award to the Philippines in 2016, which invalidated China’s so-called historical claim delineated by its Nine-Dash Line.
“Thus, the Philippines has two documents to support its claims versus none for the Chinese. Thus, the Chinese presence in the WPS is akin to somebody squatting on a piece of land owned by someone else,” he added.
On Wednesday, the Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed that Manila fired off a note verbale against a reported swarming of Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea.
This came after reports said National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. revealed that at least 113 Chinese vessels have swarmed around the Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island over the weekend.
Senator Panfilo Lacson said the government should stand up even more aggressively or more boldly just like Vietnam in its diplomatic protest against China over the swarming of more than a hundred Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Seas.
“Vietnam is really standing their ground. It would seem that we are the only one accommodating especially now. But if you look at Vietnam, Japan, they are really standing up. My take on this, we have an ASEAN. Why don’t we band together as ASEAN countries, small countries?” said Lacson in Thursday’s “Kapihan sa Senado” forum.
“Isn’t there a saying that united we stand, divided we fall?” he said.
The problem, he said, is during the time of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the Philippines had an agreement with other ASEAN countries but because of the ZTE scandal with China, it appears the agreement was abandoned.
“I don’t know if we can regain the trust and confidence of the other ASEAN countries,” Lacson said.
He noticed the President’s slight change in posture toward China.
“We are ever-giving. If you notice, the President shifted his attitude towards China. He can now talk more strongly against some excessive acts ng China in the WPS,” he said.
He played down suggestions that the government has done little about Chinese incursions.
“You have to balance them because first, our capability to fight,” Lacson said, returning to a Duterte argument. “We will go back to what we have been talking about the last time I was here. We have weapons in our arsenal that we haven’t used,” he said.
“And it was misunderstood or misinterpreted. They taught we were challenging them to a war, When I mentioned MDT [Mutual DefenseTreaty], with the US and I said we could cite that, it doesn’t mean we will apply [it] already because it’s not applicable yet,” he added.
Senator Joel Villanueva said the filing of the diplomatic protest on the reported swarming of Chinese ships on Filipino fisherfolk is a welcome development.
“We hope that the Department of Foreign Affairs reveals the contents of the protest, especially [since] our national security adviser raised the alarm on threats to our country’s national security,” Villanueva. With AFP and PNA