BANGKOK (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday that Washington isn’t asking any Asian nation to take sides as it engages with the region where China is battling for influence and aggressively expanding territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Pompeo hailed an Indo-Pacific engagement framework adopted by the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in June, saying it supports sovereignty, transparency, good governance and a rules-based order among other things.
The U.S.-China rivalry fueled by their trade disputes has put the 10-member ASEAN bloc in a tight spot and the new framework is aimed at finding a middle ground to keep on the good side of both Washington and Beijing.
“Look, we don’t ever ask any Indo-Pacific nations to choose between countries. Our engagement in this region has not been and will not be a zero sum exercise. Our interests simply naturally converge with yours to our mutual benefit,” Pompeo said in a speech at an annual meeting with his ASEAN counterparts.
U.S. relations with ASEAN are guided by a shared commitment to the fundamental rules of law, human rights and sustainable economic growth, he added.
Beijing has been attempting to project its influence globally through its “Belt and Road” initiative, an ambitious development program of major infrastructure projects. Washington, meanwhile, has been promoting what it calls a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, an all-encompassing vision that focuses on areas such as rule of law, freedom of navigation and open markets that Beijing regards as directed against it.
Despite Pompeo’s comments in Bangkok, he and other Trump administration officials have for months been raising the alarm about the dangers of countries allowing significant Russian and Chinese investment in their technology and infrastructure sectors.
On a tour of Europe earlier this year, Pompeo told Poland, Hungary and Britain among others to shun the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, warning that the U.S. may be forced to limit intelligence cooperation with them if they go ahead with 5G projects run by the company. In Latin America, Pompeo and others have said Chinese development investment and assistance will come with a price, maintaining that the country seeks to enrich only itself with predatory practices.
Pompeo’s comments Thursday came a day after China warned against any attempt to sow discord between Beijing and ASEAN countries by playing up disputes over the South China Sea.
China’s assertive territorial claims in the South China Sea, through which a third of global shipping passes, has drawn rebuke from the United States and become a flashpoint for a region in which ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei all have claims to the waters. ASEAN and China have for years been working on a Code of Conduct meant to govern the waterway and make the area more stable.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi later Thursday said Beijing will not let anyone block its right to development. He said Pompeo said Washington has no intention to contain China’s development and expressed hope to cooperate and advance trade talks.
“It is neither fair nor possible to try to obstruct China’s development. China has the right to development, too. China’s development is peaceful with strong internal impetus. It will not be stopped by anyone,” Wang said in remarks to reporters provided by the Chinese delegation after talks with Pompeo on the sidelines of the ASEAN meetings.
Wang said he asked the U.S. to “exercise prudence in words and deeds” after making clear China’s position on South China Sea, persecution of Muslims in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region and pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong during the meeting. He also urged the U.S. to abide by the one-China policy and deal with Taiwan-related issues with caution, in reference to U.S. weapon sales to Taiwan, which China considers part of its territory.
Wang said Pompeo also told him that the U.S. is ready to restart the working-level consultations with North Korea anytime despite the North’s recent weapons test.
China hopes both sides will “meet each other halfway, accommodate each other’s concerns, formulate a practical and viable roadmap as soon as possible and advance the political settlement process in a phased and synchronized manner,” he added.
Talks have been stalled since Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s summit in February in Hanoi broke up over disagreements about sanctions relief and what actions the North would have to take in exchange. But they agreed to restart the talks when they met at the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas in June.
The North has conducted two short-range ballistic missile tests in the past week and the two sides remain at odds on a definition of denuclearization.
AP journalists Matthew Lee and Grant Peck contributed to this report.