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The backstory: In the Indo-Pacific, rivalries over influence and territory have been heating up. This region has been seeing more of a tug-of-war between China and the US (and the West in general). And there have also been escalating regional conflicts, like disputes over South China Sea territory. One issue is that, in the past few years, China has been accused of being more assertive with its claims in the South China Sea. For example, China just recently released a new official map of the waterway, and several Southeast Asian nations rejected the map and the way the territory was drawn. Another is China’s concerns over US-backed blocs forming in the region.
More recently: This week, Indonesia is hosting the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit. Leaders from the 10 member associations represented include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. At this year’s event, senior officials from China, Japan, South Korea, the US and Canada are also participating in talks.
Two big issues taking center stage at the conference are the current crisis in Myanmar under its military junta regime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea. US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping are not attending the event, but US Vice President Kamala Harris and Chinese Premier Li Qiang are present.
The development: On Wednesday, Chinese Premier Li Qiang spoke, warning against a “new Cold War” in the ASEAN Indo-Pacific zone. He stressed the importance of finding more constructive ways to settle disagreements. He also stressed that Indo-Pacific countries should avoid “taking sides” and that major powers in the area shouldn’t let differences escalate into dangerous hostility. The same day, Harris met with ASEAN leaders to throw the US’s support behind countries in the region. She gave them props for being committed to solving regional issues while following “international rules and norms.”
"At present, it is very important to oppose taking sides, bloc confrontation and a new Cold War," Chinese Premier Li Qiang said at the ASEAN Summit.
"The United States has an enduring commitment to Southeast Asia and more broadly to the Indo-Pacific," US Vice President Harris said during her meeting with ASEAN leaders.
“The vice president will underscore the United States’ and ASEAN’s shared interest in upholding the rules-based international order, including in the South China Sea, in the face of China’s unlawful maritime claims and provocative actions,” a White House official said on Tuesday.
“If ASEAN is not useful, that is a great danger, because the other option is they go up to the big powers and they bring these big powers to the region,” Lina Alexandra, a political analyst at think tank CSIS, said about how ASEAN serves its member states.