US Vice President Kamala Harris, Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attended an East Asia summit in Jakarta on Thursday, as host Indonesia’s leader warned against sharpening rivalries.
The meeting brought Washington and Beijing into contact a day after Li warned major powers must manage their differences to avoid a “new Cold War”, and ahead of the G20 summit in New Delhi this week where Chinese President Xi Jinping will be absent.
Interactions between the officials from the world’s top two economies are being closely watched as they seek to control tensions that risk flaring anew over issues ranging from Taiwan to ties with Moscow and the competition for influence in the Pacific.
“I ask… the leaders of the East Asia Summit, to make this a forum for us to strengthen cooperation and not sharpen rivalries,” Indonesian President Joko Widodo said in opening remarks.
Harris and Li held separate talks with Southeast Asian leaders on Wednesday when the US vice president discussed “upholding international law in the South China Sea”, a statement from her office said. Chinese claims in the disputed waterway have angered several Southeast Asian nations.
Thursday’s 18-nation summit is the first time top US and Russian officials have sat around the same table in almost two months, after US and European officials condemned Lavrov at a July ministerial meeting over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Lavrov spoke of the risks of the “militarisation of East Asia”, accusing the NATO alliance of moving into the region and calling the AUKUS defence alliance between Australia, Britain and the United States “confrontational”, Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement Thursday.
His comments came a day after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced $1 billion in new assistance to Ukraine in a visit to Kyiv.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese leader Fumio Kishida, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese all attended the summit, as well as leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Yoon told officials that any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the South China Sea were “unacceptable” and called for a “rules-based maritime order” to manage the key transportation route, according to his office.
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr said regional powers must oppose the “dangerous use of coast guard and maritime militia vessels” in the South China Sea after several incidents with Chinese boats in recent months, according to his speech released by the presidential palace.
A leaders’ statement seen by AFP omitted any mention of the South China Sea or the Ukraine war.
Albanese met Li on the sidelines of the summit, confirming he would visit China later this year as Canberra seeks to stabilise ties with Beijing.
China’s premier in turn said Beijing was ready to resume bilateral exchanges after years of friction, state news agency Xinhua reported.
G20 host Modi told ASEAN leaders on Thursday morning it is essential to make collective efforts to ensure a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, using another term for the Asia-Pacific region.
While the gathering can bring major players together, its ability to help resolve a range of regional and global disputes is limited, experts say.
“Lately we can say that the East Asia summit is broken. It has been turned into a forum for talking points,” said Aaron Connelly, senior fellow at Singapore-based think tank IISS.
Thursday’s meeting was more geopolitical in scope but big powers used earlier talks in Jakarta to shore up alliances and lobby the Southeast Asian bloc.
Li travelled on a Chinese-funded high-speed train project between the capital Jakarta and the Javan city of Bandung with a senior Indonesian minister on Wednesday.
Harris held separate meetings with Widodo and Marcos — whose countries are both ASEAN members — on the sidelines of the summit.
“The Vice President reaffirmed the United States’ ironclad alliance commitment to the Philippines, and highlighted the role the US-Philippines alliance plays in ensuring a free, open and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” her office said in a statement.
The ASEAN summit this week was dominated by the Myanmar crisis, where leaders called on the country’s junta rulers to stop attacks on civilians.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said before he met ASEAN leaders on Thursday that hopes of a return to democracy in Myanmar were being crushed by “systematic repression”.
“Brutal violence, worsening poverty, and systematic repression are crushing hopes for a return to democracy.”
Myanmar is also an ASEAN member but its junta leaders are banned from high-level meetings of the bloc.