US-China big power rivalry set for Bangkok staging

Bangkok (AFP) –


The US-China rivalry is set to be sharpened at a Bangkok summit that opened Wednesday, with Washington's top diplomat primed to insist his nation remains a key Asia-Pacific power in the face of Beijing's military ambitions in contested seas and airspace.

Foreign ministers from 10 Southeast Asian countries are meeting in the Thai capital this week, where free trade will dominate their concerns.

They will be joined by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Chinese and Russian counterparts, with old flashpoints in the disputed South China Sea and denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula likely to loom large in talks.

New security tensions are set to be addressed, including an unprecedented joint China-Russia bomber patrol last week that angered Japan and South Korea.

While China denies it flouted Japanese or Korean airspace, the exercise has rattled Tokyo and Seoul -- and posed a new test of Washington's influence in a region home to the two crucial US allies.

In a sign of the increasingly complex diplomacy knotting Asia, Japan and Korea are also locked in a bitter dispute over World War II-era forced labour.

The row has bled into trade ties, with Tokyo restricting exports of key chemicals used by Seoul's world-leading chip and smartphone industry.

Hours before reaching Bangkok, Pompeo said he would meet the foreign ministers of both countries and "encourage them to find a path forward".

"They're both great partners of ours. They're both working closely with us on our effort to denuclearise North Korea... So yeah, I hope we have a good conversation, we can help them get to a good place," he told reporters.

Pompeo's main task is to deliver a message of reassurance over US engagement with a region now dominated by Chinese political, economic and military heft.

"This administration doesn't just talk about our commitment to the region, we are actively pursuing closer ties with our friends and partners," a senior State Department official said in a briefing before his trip.

That includes "ensuring the freedom of seas and skies; insulating sovereign nations from external coercion," the official added.

China is accused of deploying warships, arming outposts and ramming fishing vessels in disputed territory in the South China Sea, one of the world's key shipping lanes.

- Trading places -

The administration of Donald Trump, which yanked the US from a massive Asia-Pacific trade pact, has launched a rebranded "Indo-Pacific" security, open seas and commerce strategy.

But China and Russia, who are enjoying increasingly close ties, are seeking to counter-balance US moves in Southeast Asia.

On Thursday, Pompeo is set to hold talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, a meeting framed by the trade war between the two global superpowers and the tussle over free passage in the South China Sea.

Tit-for-tat tariffs have chiselled away at global growth.

The trade war has brought new jobs to some Southeast Asia nations as manufacturers relocate to swerve US tariffs.

But it has also deflated demand across the export-led region.

Ministers from ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, are set to raise the issue of free trade in their talks with the US and China this week.

"Politically and economically, we are witnessing increased nationalism," Thailand's Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said in opening remarks at the summit.

"We must recognise that looking inward and being myopic is not our option and never will be," he said, adding it is essential to ensure "free flow trade".

Ongoing US-led attempts to prod North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons programme are expected to be discussed -- although a Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said Pyongyang will not send a ministerial-level delegate.