KUALA LUMPUR – President Joe Biden told leaders at the East Asia Summit on Wednesday that China's recent actions in the Taiwan Straits are “coercive" and undermined peace and stability in the region.
The comments by Biden, who participated by video in the annual meeting of 18 Asia-Pacific nations, come during a surge in Chinese military activity near the island that China regards as a renegade province and has vowed to reclaim by force if necessary.
“The president also reiterated the U.S. commitment to the international rules-based order and expressed concern over threats to that order,” the White House said in a statement. “He made clear that the United States will continue to stand with allies and partners in support of democracy, human rights, rule of law, and freedom of the seas.”
Last week, Biden set off alarm bells in Beijing by saying the U.S. has a firm commitment to help Taiwan defend itself in the event of a Chinese attack.
The White House later downplayed the president’s comments, which came during a CNN town hall, and said he did not mean to imply any changes in the U.S. “one-China policy,” which recognizes Beijing but allows informal relations and defense ties with Taipei.
Relations between Washington and Beijing have plunged to new lows since nosediving under former President Donald Trump's administration, which adopted a confrontational approach on trade, visas, diplomatic representation and educational exchanges.
A U.S. nuclear submarine deal with Australia and the U.K. has also angered China, which claims most of the disputed South China Sea and warned the pact would threaten regional stability.
Some nations such as Indonesia and Malaysia also fear the pact could escalate tensions and spark an arms race.
“Indonesia does not want this region to become an arms race and a power projection that can threaten stability,” Indonesian President Joko Widodo told his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison, according to Indonesia's foreign minister.
Australia announced a $93 million package to support security, climate and health efforts in Southeast Asia, while Morrison defended the new pact with the U.S. and UK., saying it does not change Australia’s commitment to the Association of Southeast Asia Nations or the ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific — "indeed it reinforces it.”
He said Australia had no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons and remained deeply committed to nuclear non-proliferation.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said his country shared serious concern with ASEAN about challenges to the free and open maritime order in the East and South China seas, according to Japan's Foreign ministry.
He did not mention China by name, but Tokyo has more become vocal in defending the freedom of navigation and resolution of disputes based on international law, at a time China expands its military power beyond its shores, rattling neighbors with the construction of man-made islands and sending ships near their coasts.
The meetings have been clouded by a diplomatic standoff after military-ruled Myanmar skipped the summit in protest of ASEAN's move to bar Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, whose forces seized power in February, from attending.
In Biden's private conversations with ASEAN leaders, he denounced the “horrific violence” by the military junta in Myanmar as he looks to press U.S. leadership in the Pacific.
“In Myanmar, we must address the tragedy caused by the military coup which is increasingly undermining regional stability,” Biden told the leaders, according to the White House. The president added, “The United States stands for the people of Myanmar and calls for military regime to end the violence, release all political prisoners and return to the path of democracy.”
ASEAN's censure of Myanmar was its boldest after the bloc's envoy was prevented from meeting ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political detainees as part of a proposed dialogue to ease the crisis that has left more than 1,100 mostly anti-military protesters dead.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong expressed concern over the detention in Myanmar of Australian academician Sean Turnell, who served as an economic adviser to Suu Kyi’s government. Morrison thanked Lee for the concern, a Southeast Asian diplomat, who took part in the meeting, told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to discuss the discussions publicly.
Myanmar has refused to send a junior representative to the summit, and slammed ASEAN’s move as going against the bloc’s principles of non-interference in each other’s affairs and decision-making by consensus. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said Myanmar’s decision to snub the summit was “regrettable” and hinted he may also consider not inviting the military-led nation’s top general to a video summit of more than 50 Asian and European countries Cambodia will host next month, the diplomat said.
There have been concerns that European leaders may skip the summit and just send lower-ranking representatives if the Myanmar general will be allowed to join, according to the diplomat.
In a chairman’s statement released after the summit Tuesday, the bloc’s leaders urged Myanmar to give its envoy, Brunei Second Foreign Minister Eryan Yusof, full access to all parties and release political detainees.
While respecting ASEAN's principle of non-interference, the bloc said it must also strike a balance in terms of rule of law, good governance, democracy and constitutional government in Myanmar's situation.
“We reiterated that Myanmar remains a member of the ASEAN family and recognized that Myanmar needs both time and political space to deal with its many and complex challenges," the group said.
Karmini reported from Jakarta, Indonesia. Associated Press journalists Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, Kiko Rosario and Grant Peck in Bangkok, Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report.