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As China and U.S. Trade Barbs, Washington Nudges ASEAN Nations on South China Sea

In this photo, Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, center, speaks from Singapore during a videoconference on COVID-19 between ASEAN Foreign Ministers and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday, April 23, 2020. (Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs via AP)
In this photo, Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, center, speaks from Singapore during a videoconference on COVID-19 between ASEAN Foreign Ministers and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday, April 23, 2020. (Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs via AP)

Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, was supposed to discuss the novel coronavirus pandemic with his counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in a virtual meeting last week. But he quickly pivoted to the controversial subject of the South China Sea.

Secretary Pompeo directed the conversation to the U.S.’ geopolitical battle with China, calling the Chinese Communist Party’s recent actions as “provocative behavior.”

“It is important to highlight how the Chinese Communist Party is exploiting the world’s focus on the COVID-19 crisis by continuing its provocative behavior,” Pompeo said. “The CCP is exerting military pressure and coercing its neighbors in the SCS, even going so far as to sink a Vietnamese fishing vessel.”

Secretary Pompeo was referring to collisions between Vietnamese fishing boats with Chinese coastguard vessel in the South China Sea, a recent standoff between the Malaysian and Chinese coast guards, and, most recently, Beijing’s move to turn artificial islands in the contested Paracel islands into an administrative region under Hainan Province.

“The U.S. strongly opposes China’s bullying and we hope other nations will hold them to account too,” Pompeo told the 10-nation bloc.

A ruling in 2016 by the Permanent Court of Arbitration challenged China’s claims in the South China Sea, but its non-binding nature did little to bring any change of the status quo at the sea.

And with Washington’s renewed calls for the Southeast Asian countries to speak, analysts and observers have mixed views on whether the U.S. could rally ASEAN countries – four of which are direct claimants to the maritime territory – to speak up and stand up to China.

The question is how does the U.S. rally Southeast Asian countries to put a stop to these incursions when China has become an intrinsic part of the investment and economic systems in the 10-nation bloc.

Vietnam, one of the foremost challengers to China’s nine-dash lines claim to large swathes of the seas, had been one an active supporter for the U.S. push to contain China.

Wasting no time, Hanoi’s Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh endorsed Pompeo’s talking points. “While we are all doubling our efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, we should not lose sight of issues that have long-term implications for peace, security, and stability in the region,” said Vietnam’s chief diplomat.

It wasn’t immediately clear if Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, who attended the online meeting, had responded to Pompeo or even talked about the South China Sea. A spokesperson for the ministry did not respond to a request for comment. A statement released after the call also makes no mention of the contested seas or Pompeo’s comments, except for a single, vaguely-worded sentence about regional security.

“The Meeting also touched upon regional issues pertaining to peace and security in the region and beyond,” the statement reads.

But things got a lot clearer on Monday when Prak Sokhonn spoke to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who in no unclear terms rejected the “polarization” of the region, though without naming the U.S.

“His Excellency Wang Yi thanks Cambodia for opposing the politicization and the blame game at the time we need unity to deal with such common threat to mankind,” Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a statement. “This is time for unity not polarization.”

The Chinese foreign minister also extended an invitation to Prime Minister Hun Sen to visit, Wuhan, China, where the virus is believed to have originated. Hun Sen had expressed an intention to go to Wuhan to meet stranded Cambodian students, only to be redirected to Beijing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping, a symbol of Cambodia’s continuing camaraderie with China.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the acute tensions between the U.S. and China. Setting aside the trade war, the pandemic has seen the U.S. administration attempt to pin the blame for the virus’s spread on China. The Asian superpower in return has focused more on aid diplomacy to help countries, including Cambodia, deal with their domestic viral outbreaks.

The events of the South China Sea are just the latest in a string of events in the last months that suggest a more strained relationship between the two largest economies in the world.

“[The] pandemic situation may be seen by the Chinese leadership as an emboldening opportunity to accelerate its moves, as other countries are inward-looking, distracted and in disarray,” said Nadège Rolland, a senior fellow at the National Bureau of Asia Research.

“China’s strategic advances and increased assertiveness in the South China Sea have begun to emerge ten years ago,” she added. “There have been many missed opportunities over the last decade for the U.S. to counter China’s moves.”

Elina Noor, an associate professor with the U.S. Defense Department’s Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, said she found the timing of China’s moves “disappointing.”

“While this intimidation is not new nor totally unexpected on China’s part, it, unfortunately, raises further questions about China’s commitment to resolving the [South China Sea] dispute peacefully and in accordance with international law,” she told VOA Khmer in an email.

Beijing, however, has defended its actions.

“I want to stress that China will always resolutely safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests, no matter what, no matter when,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told a press conference on April 23.

“China's sovereignty over the islands and reefs in the South China Sea and their adjacent waters is based on sufficient historical and jurisprudential evidence,” he added. “Some people in the US want to replace facts with rumors and lies and sow discords among neighbors. Such attempts will not succeed.”

Po Sovinda, a doctoral candidate with Griffith University in Australia, said he doubts whether the U.S. would be able to galvanize ASEAN member states against China given the latter’s deep-running trade and investment links, not to mention the recent aid sent to nearly all of the bloc’s countries.

“ASEAN leaders do not perceive the platform as the tribunal to deliver verdicts [on the conflict] but rather a central place for all stakeholders to come to a single table and discuss any issues together,” Po Sovinda told VOA Khmer.

The National Bureau of Asian Research’s Nadège Rolland, however, said the U.S. could still find some space to empower ASEAN standing up to China.

“Washington should make sure that ASEAN stays united and provide the diplomatic, political and military support that ASEAN needs as it stands in the frontline,” she said.