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South China Sea: China brands US ‘biggest driver’ of military escalation as tensions soar

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China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi lashed out during a four-day series of virtual meetings between Asian foreign ministers. The ten-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) began their annual talks on Wednesday.

The Prime Minister of Vietnam and chairman of Asean, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, said in his opening speech that cooperation on medical supplies and economic recovery were some of the groups key priorities due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Vietnam’s Prime Minister mentioned the sea dispute but did not criticise China.

But Mr Wang did point his finger at the US over the South China Sea tensions.

He described Washington as the main driver of militarisation in the disputed sea.

The Chinese diplomat also said the US had engaged in smears of China’s actions in the area.

Mr Wang said: “Peace and stability are China’s greatest strategic interest in the South China Sea.”

During the meeting on Wednesday, Mr Wang talked about China’s position on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The convention’s parties Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines as well as Indonesia, oppose China’s claim of some 85 percent of the sea.

The Southeast Asian countries said the Chinese boundary infringes on their territorial waters as set out by the convention.

But Taiwan has a similar claim to sea as China.

Mr Wang said that although China was a party to the UN convention, it did not recognise the law’s binding settlement provisions for boundary disputes in the sea.

China had exercised an opt-out in 2006 over such disputes after signing and ratifying the convention.

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Mr Wang said China’s “construction” activity in the disputed sea was being done to provide “public goods” for the area and ensuring the country’s security.

He said: “In the face of escalating military pressure from countries outside the region, we certainly have the basic self-protection rights of sovereign states.”

The US has harshened its positions over the South China Sea amid the continuing border row.

America has aligned its legal stance on the dispute with a 2016 arbitral ruling brought in by the Philippines against China.

The ruling shuts down China’s claim to the area.

But Beijing has rejected the finding from the ruling, using its 2006 opt-out.

Mr Wang also discussed the overall rivalry between the two superpowers.

He said the current situation was not a struggle for power or a question of opposing systems.

He said: “But about adhering to multilateralism or unilateralism, and advocating win-win cooperation or zero-sum game”.

In a meeting, Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh had also expressed his concerns over the “recent complex developments and serious incidents” in the South China Sea, according to a statement.

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