A US envoy has denounced Chinese “intimidation” in the South China Sea at a meeting of Southeast Asian leaders, as he conveyed an invitation from President Donald Trump for the leaders to attend a special summit in the United States.
China has made sweeping maritime claims in the resource-rich waters of the South China Sea and angered neighbours by sending ships into the busy waterway, where several members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) also have claims.
“Beijing has used intimidation to try to stop ASEAN nations from exploiting the off-shore resources, blocking access to 2.5 trillion dollars of oil and gas reserve alone,” US envoy Robert O’Brien told on Monday the ASEAN-US summit in a speech in Bangkok, Thailand.
O’Brien, the White House national security adviser, read a message from Trump inviting the ASEAN leaders to “join me in the United States for a special summit” in the first quarter of 2020.
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ASEAN has been struggling over how to address tensions over China’s encroachment into the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
Grappling with China
Vietnam wanted ASEAN leaders to issue a communique that would mention Chinese movements into waters where Vietnam has exclusive rights to exploit energy resources and other recent, aggressive acts off the Philippines and Malaysia.
China, through its ASEAN ally Cambodia, has opposed any such move, two Southeast Asian diplomats told AP news agency.
After weeks of wrangling, senior diplomats reached a compromise on expressing concern over “serious incidents in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region,” one of the diplomats said.
The phrase would not name China or mention other details, the diplomat said.
China and its ASEAN allies have steadfastly refused attempts at the annual summitsto rebuke Beijing for its actions, which include building seven islands on disputed reefs that US officials say could serve as military platforms to intimidate rival claimants.
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea, a vital waterway for global commerce.
It opposes naval and aerial patrols by the US and its allies as American interference in an Asian problem. Beijing also regards the US concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific region as a strategy to contain China.
Much of Asia looks to the US to help counter China’s growing reach and power.
Trump’s absence, however, is a disappointment to some in the region and may undermine the US assertion that it puts a high priority on trade and other ties with the region.
But US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross insisted that his country remains “extremely engaged” with Asia, adding that “we continue to negotiate trade deals with countries in this region.”
ASEAN members include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.