SINGAPORE — The U.S. and China offered rival visions for the Asia-Pacific region Thursday at a summit of Southeast Asian nations whose economies and strategic interests are deeply entwined with both powers, with Vice President Mike Pence saying there was no room for “empire or aggression” in the region.
Pence stressed the “steadfast and enduring” American commitment to the Indo-Pacific region as he met with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations during their annual summit in Singapore.
“Our vision for the Indo-Pacific excludes no nation. It only requires that every nation treat their neighbors with respect, they respect the sovereignty of our nations and the international rules of order,” Pence said in a veiled swipe at China’s growing influence and military expansion in the South China Sea.
He is standing in for President Donald Trump at the ASEAN meeting and another summit later this week in Papua New Guinea.
The ASEAN meetings focus on enhanced trade and security in a region of more than 630 million people.
While in Singapore, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has sought to reassure China’s neighbors over its expanding reach, both economic and military, across the region.
In a separate meeting with the ASEAN leaders, he urged them to help reassure world markets roiled by U.S. trade policies that have resulted in the imposition of punitive tariffs on billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese products, among other measures.
Southeast Asian countries and others in the region share China’s consternation over the Trump administration’s rejection of multilateral trade regimes and the global trade system that has helped them modernize and enrich their economies. Many of the leaders attending the meetings in Singapore have emphasized the need to fight protectionism and protect the rules that help govern global trade.
The region needs to “take concrete action to uphold the rules-based free trade regime and to send a message — a positive message — to the market to provide stable, predictable and law-based conditions for the market,” Li said.
Managing conflict in the South China Sea is a perennial concern. China is pitted against its smaller neighbors in multiple disputes in the sea over coral reefs and lagoons in waters crucial for global commerce and rich in fish and potential oil and gas reserves.
The region is a potential flashpoint, and a huge concern for the U.S. and other countries that rely on the right of passage for shipping.
ASEAN leaders said they discussed the need for restraint in the area.
“We all agreed on ways and means not to increase tensions in the South China Sea. And that means not bringing in warships and allowing for freedom of navigation,” Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed told reporters. “Small patrol boats are needed to deal with piracy, mainly, but big warships may cause incidents and that will lead to tension.”
Asked about the reaction by the U.S., which is committed by treaty to defending allies in the region, he said, “Mr. Pence sounds quite reasonable and he says that President Trump is concerned about the situation.”
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has relaxed his country’s stance on Chinese claims to islands also claimed by Manila, said it also was crucial that the countries involved finish work on a “code of conduct” to help prevent misunderstandings that could lead to conflict.
“China is there. That is the reality,” he told reporters before joining the morning’s meetings. “Strong military activity will prompt a response from China. I do not mind everybody going to war, but except that the Philippines is just beside those islands. If there is shooting there my country will be the first to suffer.”
The meetings Thursday followed scores of bilateral encounters among the leaders and talks on other issues such as environmental concerns, mechanisms for coping with disasters and the crisis over hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya Muslims who have fled to Bangladesh to escape violence in Myanmar.
While the gathering was typically focused on cooperation and goodwill, concerns over Myanmar’s treatment of its ethnic Rohingya Muslims flared with unusually sharp, public comments both by Pence and Mahathir to the country’s leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled from western Myanmar’s Rakhine state to escape killings and destruction of their homes by the country’s military and vigilantes, drawing widespread condemnation and international accusations of genocide against Myanmar.
Asked if Suu Kyi had agreed to his direct request that she pardon two Reuters’ journalists imprisoned in Myanmar, Pence replied, “We did not get a clear answer on that.” He said Suu Kyi had given some details on the appeals process and judicial handling of their cases.
The ASEAN members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Its annual summit includes meetings with various other nations.
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