BEIJING (AP) — China is hosting foreign ministers from 10 Southeast Asian nations this week amid heightened competition between Beijing and Washington for influence in the region.
Chinese state media said the meeting Tuesday in the southwestern megacity of Chongqing will cover issues from restoring tourism and other economic exchanges battered by COVID-19, to more coordinated efforts in fighting the pandemic and the feasibility of creating a “vaccine passport” to allow freer travel among them.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is also expected to meet separately with each of his counterparts on the sidelines of the conference.
Beijing has been building influence with the 10 countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, despite frictions with some of them over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.
China’s economic and diplomatic heft has helped override such concerns, however, while the bloc has been unable to form a unified stand in the face of opposition from Chinese allies within it, primarily Cambodia.
“Over the past three decades, China-ASEAN cooperation has grown in leaps and bounds, becoming the most successful and dynamic example of cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Sunday in announcing the meeting.
“The fact that the two sides agreed to hold a face-to-face special foreign ministers’ meeting despite the ongoing grim COVID-19 situation reflects how countries attach great importance to and hold high expectations of China-ASEAN relations under the new circumstances,” Wang said.
The U.S., which maintains an active naval presence in the South China Sea and strong relations with the region, has expressed concerns over China’s growing presence, particularly its impact on security and Beijing’s political influence over the countries.
“We support ASEAN in upholding the principle of non-interference in internal affairs and the tradition of consensus,” Wang said at a briefing on Monday.
China calls the U.S. naval presence in Southeast Asia the biggest threat to security in the region, particularly its insistence on sailing close to Chinese-held territories in what is termed freedom of navigation operations.
Beijing also strongly objects to strengthened relations between the U.S. and Taiwan, the self-governing island claimed by China, which threatens to use military force to bring it under its control.