Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s recent address at the annual summit involving members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and regional powers in Indonesia has underscored the pressing need to avert a “new Cold War” amidst escalating geopolitical tensions across the Indo-Pacific region. In his remarks, Premier Li emphasized the importance of handling international conflicts by “appropriately handling differences and disputes.”
Li further cautioned against aligning with specific sides, fostering bloc confrontations, or plunging into a new era of Cold War dynamics. These words were spoken at a pivotal gathering that included discussions between ASEAN and key figures such as US Vice President Kamala Harris, as well as leaders from Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India. Notably absent from the summit were US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.
A prominent item on the summit’s agenda was growing concern over China’s increasingly assertive actions in the South China Sea, a vital trade route where multiple ASEAN nations have territorial claims conflicting with China’s.
In response to this concern, ASEAN engaged in talks with China to expedite negotiations regarding a long-debated code of conduct for the South China Sea. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, representing the ASEAN chair, Indonesia, highlighted discussions on this matter during an ASEAN-Japan summit, emphasizing the importance of maintaining stability, especially in the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea.
The United States and its allies echoed ASEAN’s calls for freedom of navigation, airspace, and refraining from establishing a physical presence in contested waters. China has notably constructed various facilities, including runways, on small landmasses in the South China Sea.
A White House official asserted that Vice President Harris would underscore the shared interest of the United States and ASEAN in upholding the rules-based international order, particularly in the South China Sea, in response to China’s disputed maritime claims and provocative actions.
Prior to the summit, China released a map featuring a “10-dash line,” which appeared to extend its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Several ASEAN members, however, rejected this map.
ASEAN’s response, as reflected in a draft statement seen by Reuters, emphasizes the need to “enhance stability in the maritime sphere in our region” and explore new initiatives toward this end. Notably, some members within the Southeast Asian grouping have established close diplomatic, economic, and military ties with China, while others remain cautious.
As political analyst Lina Alexandra from the think tank CSIS noted, the draft statement seems “weak on the issues of the South China Sea,” raising concerns, particularly from the Philippines, about ASEAN’s effectiveness in addressing China’s presence in the region.
The summit also witnessed South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol pledging cooperation with Japan and China to resume three-way talks, while emphasizing the immediate cessation of any military cooperation with North Korea. This was in response to reports suggesting North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, plans to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss supplying weapons for the conflict in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, ASEAN, comprised of 10 member states, convened earlier in the week, seeking to assert its relevance amidst criticism that it has not effectively pressured Myanmar’s military leaders to collaborate on a peace plan for the strife-ridden country. Myanmar has experienced widespread violence since the military’s overthrow of the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi in early 2021.