China Warns Joe Biden His Southeast Asia Moves 'Sabotage' Peace and Stability

As Beijing and Washington compete for influence in Southeast Asia, China has warned that U.S. President Joe Biden's positions on territorial disputes there threaten to foment disunity and unrest across the region.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken participated Wednesday in a virtual summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the first such high-level engagement nearly six months into the new U.S. administration.

He discussed a range of issues, including joint efforts against COVID-19 and climate change, but also introduced a geopolitical initiative to offer the United States' backing against its top rival, the People's Republic of China, and its broad territorial claims.

"The Secretary underscored the United States' rejection of the PRC's unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea and reiterated that the United States stands with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of PRC coercion," according to a State Department readout. "He pledged continued U.S. support for a free and open Mekong region under the Mekong-U.S. Partnership."

The statements drew an immediate salvo from Beijing.

"The remarks of the U.S. side disregard history and facts about the South China Sea issue, violate and distort international law, break the U.S. government's long-held public commitment of not taking a position on the South China Sea sovereignty issue, deliberately stoke disputes on territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, sow discord among China and ASEAN countries, and sabotage regional peace and stability," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told a press briefing Wednesday.

He called the U.S. comments "extremely irresponsible," and issued a challenge to Washington's failure to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the leading international agreement on the rights and responsibilities of nations across the world's oceans.

"China expresses its firm opposition to the wrong remarks of the U.S," Zhao said. "The U.S. calls itself a defender of international law, keeps referring to UNCLOS and making an issue out of it. Why doesn't it accede to the Convention first?"

USS, Charleston, fires, gun, South, China, Sea
The Mk 110 57mm Gun Weapons System is fired as part of a regular operational exercise aboard Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Charleston on July 11. The warship is on a mission to "enhance interoperability with partners and serve as a ready-response force in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region," according to the U.S. Navy. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Adam Butler/Command Destroyer Squadron 7/U.S. Navy

While the U.S. hasn't joined China and every ASEAN state other than Cambodia in ratifying UNCLOS, Washington has demonstrated de facto acceptance of much of the treaty as customary international law. The Pentagon has also cited the principle of "freedom of navigation" for its operations conducted near contested regions such as the South China Sea.

One such U.S. Navy freedom of navigation operation was conducted Monday by Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Benfold in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands, referred to as Xisha Islands by China and the Hoang Sa Archipelago by Vietnam, which both claim the South China Sea land mass. Taiwan also claims the islands as part of its argument that it is the legitimate representative of China.

"This freedom of navigation operation ("FONOP") upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging the unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam," the Seventh Fleet said in a statement at the time," "and also by challenging China's claim to strait baselines enclosing the Paracel Islands."

"Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas," the statement added, "including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations."

Shortly after the operation, the Chinese People's Liberation Army issued a scathing criticism of the maneuver.

"The U.S. action seriously goes against the international law and basic norms governing international relations," Air Force Senior Colonel Tian Junli, spokesperson for the Chinese PLA Southern Theater Command, said in a statement, "which is yet another ironclad proof that the United States has been pursuing navigation hegemony and creating militarization of the South China Sea. Facts have proved that the U.S. is in every sense a "security risk maker in the South China Sea.'"

Tian warned Washington must stop engaging in such behavior, "otherwise, all consequences arising therefrom will be borne by the U.S. side."

But the 7th Fleet hit back, calling Beijing's account of the mission "false."

The U.S. Navy fleet argued that USS Benfold "conducted this FONOP in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters."

The statement went on to reiterate the U.S. claim to maritime rights in the region.

"The United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as USS Benfold did here Nothing PRC says otherwise will deter us," the statement said, characterizing the People's Liberation Army remarks of being "the latest in a long string of PRC actions to misrepresent lawful U.S. maritime operations and assert its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims at the expense of its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea."

The statement also outlined U.S. criticism of Chinese actions ahead of Wednesday's ASEAN meeting.

"The PRC's behavior stands in contrast to the United States' adherence to international law and our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region," the Seventh Fleet said. "All nations, large and small, should be secure in their sovereignty, free from coercion, and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted international rules and norms."

China, President, Xi, Jinping, addresses, ASEAN
Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech via video at the opening ceremony of the 17th China-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Expo in Nanning, in southern China's Guangxi province on November 27, 2020. China has intensified its outreach to ASEAN in recent years to boost both economic and political partnerships, while seeking to block U.S. inroads Beijing views as potentially disruptive. AFP/Getty Images

While the U.S. seeks to broaden its posture in the Southeast Asia region, China's influence continues a parallel expansion.

Last year, ASEAN overtook the European Union as China's largest trading partner, at a time when almost every one of the international bloc's 10 members counted China as their own top trading partner.

Beijing has also sought to expand this clout beyond the limits of the economic realm to include other ventures. On Wednesday, China Media Group gathered some 100 guests from 33 organizations originating from about 14 countries to establish an agreement between Chinese and ASEAN media.

China Media Group President and Editor-in-Chief Shen Haixiong hailed the move as advancing people-to-people links between China and ASEAN nations.

"In recent years, CMG and media organizations of ASEAN countries have been engaged in multi-dimensional and multi-level exchange and cooperation, which has effectively promoted mutual understanding and trust between our peoples," Shen said, according to a press release.

Representatives of various regional media organizations spoke at the event, which ASEAN-China Centre Secretary-General Chen Dehai said marked an opportunity to further fortify Beijing's ties to the region.

"At present, ASEAN-China relations are standing at a new historical starting point with even broader prospects," he said.