This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed grave concern last Friday about what he described as China’s growing nuclear arsenal and told an annual regional security conference that the Asian superpower should also cease “provocative behavior” in the South China Sea.
America’s top diplomat raised these concerns during his first appearance in that role before the ASEAN Regional Forum, a virtual meeting that drew his counterparts from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and 10 of the bloc’s dialogue partners, including China, Russia, Japan, and other world powers.
“The Secretary … noted deep concern with the rapid growth of the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China’s] nuclear arsenal which highlights how Beijing has sharply deviated from its decades-old nuclear strategy based on minimum deterrence,” the State Department said in a statement about Blinken’s participation at the meeting.
Blinken was referring to recent think-tank reports that said China was building more than 100 silos for nuclear missiles in its Gansu province and in eastern Xinjiang.
In June, however, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that Beijing kept its nuclear capabilities at a minimum level needed for national security. China does not compete with any other country in the size or scale of nuclear force, he told the Conference on Disarmament then.
South China Sea
Still, the findings of China’s increasing nuclear missile silos are especially worrisome for Southeast Asian nations with overlapping claims to Beijing’s in the South China Sea, analysts have said.
Beijing claims almost the entire waterway, large parts of which it has militarized. In addition, other claimants to the sea say China has stepped up the presence of its coastguard and huge fishing fleet in their exclusive economic zones, or EEZs.
China’s expansive claims include waters within the EEZs of Taiwan and ASEAN member-states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s EEZ as well.
Secretary Blinken told the ASEAN Regional Forum that China needed to adhere to international laws – in 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague dismissed Beijing’s expansive claims in the South China Sea.
“Secretary Blinken called on the PRC to abide by its obligations under the international law of the sea and cease its provocative behavior in the South China Sea,” State Department Ned Price said.
“Secretary Blinken also underscored the importance of democracy, transparency, and accountability in the Indo-Pacific.”
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang, however, separately told ASEAN’s top diplomats and the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting earlier this week that countries outside the region were undermining stability in the South China Sea.
China insists on the peaceful settlement of disputes through consultations by the countries directly involved, he told ASEAN foreign ministers on Tuesday.
Mahendra Siregar, Indonesia’s deputy foreign minister, told the ASEAN Regional Forum that a pandemic was not the right time for anything that increases regional tensions.
“[Re]frain from power projections and provocative actions that increase tensions in the South China Sea, especially amid a pandemic,” he said.
The international community, he said, must support ASEAN’s role “and the resolution of all forms of disputes in the South China Sea” under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Wang and Blinken both engaged with foreign ministers from ASEAN during various meetings this week, with the American diplomat marking his presence during all five days.
Both China and Washington are looking for Southeast Asian support on the South China Sea, and both touted their COVID-19 vaccine donations to the region.
Blinken said the U.S. has provided more than 23 million vaccine doses and over $158 million in health and humanitarian assistance to ASEAN members so far in response to the global pandemic.
“We will also be there to support the region to build back better from the economic damage wrought by the pandemic by helping drive a green recovery and ensure readiness for future outbreaks,” he said.
Wang said China had provided over 190 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Southeast Asia, the state-run China Daily newspaper reported. On Thursday, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged that Beijing this year would supply 2 billion doses of vaccine to other countries.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen, who also attended the ASEAN Regional Forum, said the South Asian nation “could initiate and adhere to a form of ‘vaccine diplomacy’ which ensures diversified sources of vaccines.”
“Due to the sudden sweep over of COVID-19 cases in neighboring countries, it is imperative that South Asian and Southeast Asian nations should receive their share of the vaccine without any strings attached,” he said.