Asia Pacific

U.S. rejects China maritime claims, calls for ASEAN action on Myanmar

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Tires burn on a street as protests against the military coup continue, in Mandalay, Myanmar March 27, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

HANOI, July 14 (Reuters) - The United States rejects China's "unlawful" maritime claims in the South China Sea and stands with Southeast Asian countries facing Chinese "coercion", Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday.

China rejected Blinken's comments, which he made in an address in a video conference with foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN), as irresponsible and aimed at provoking discord.

Blinken also said the United States had "deep concerns" about the situation in Myanmar and urged the group to take action to end violence and restore democracy there.

The meeting with the 10-member bloc, which includes Myanmar, is the first since the Biden administration took office in January and comes amid concerns among diplomats and others that Washington has not been paying sufficient attention to a region that is crucial to its strategy to counter an increasingly assertive China.

ASEAN has been leading the main diplomatic effort on Myanmar since a Feb. 1 coup plunged it into turmoil.

Myanmar's junta has shown little sign of heeding what ASEAN called a five-point consensus, reached in April, which seeks an end to violence, political talks and the nomination of a regional special envoy to Myanmar.

Blinken urged ASEAN to take "immediate action" on the consensus and appoint the envoy, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.

Blinken asked for the release of all those "unjustly detained" in Myanmar and the restoration of its democratic transition, Price said.

On the disputed South China Sea, Blinken emphasised the U.S. rejection of China's "unlawful maritime claims" and said the United States "stands with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of coercion", Price said.

China said the comments were aimed at derailing regional peace and stability.

"It is extremely irresponsible of the U.S. to deliberately provoke controversy over territorial sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea, sow discord among China and ASEAN countries," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a briefing in Beijing.

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China claims vast swathes of the South China Sea via its unilaterally declared, U-shaped, "nine-dash line" which overlaps with the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines, all ASEAN members.

Trillions of dollars in trade flow every year through the waterway, which also contains rich fishing grounds and gas fields.

In addition to the South China Sea, the Mekong River has become a new front in U.S.-China rivalry, with Beijing overtaking Washington in both spending and influence over downstream countries at the mercy of its control of the river's waters.

Price said Blinken "pledged continued U.S. support for a free and open Mekong region under the Mekong-U.S. Partnership".

Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said he hoped Wednesday's meeting signalled a "refreshed commitment" to U.S. multilateral cooperation.

"We understand that multilateralism was not a key focus for the previous administration, but the Biden administration's embrace of multilateral cooperation is a welcome development," Hishammuddin said, according to a copy of his delivered remarks.

"This path is the only way forward to ensure stability, peace, prosperity and security for our region."

Reporting by James Pearson; Additional reporting by Rozanna Latiff in Kuala Lumpur, Shubham Kalia in Bengaluru and Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Robert Birsel

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