JAKARTA, INDONESIA — Economic cooperation and the disputed South China Sea will be on the agenda when Southeast Asian foreign ministers meet their Chinese, Japanese and South Korean counterparts for ASEAN-plus-three talks on Thursday.
China will be represented at the talks by top diplomat Wang Yi instead of Foreign Minister Qin Gang after Qin pulled out for “health reasons”, according to the Chinese foreign ministry.
Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and his South Korean counterpart Park Jin will also attend.
The grouping was established after the 1997 Asian financial crisis to develop better economic ties between Southeast Asian nations and East Asian powers.
Association of Southeast Asian Nations members include this year’s chair Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, the Philippines and Myanmar.
Experts said the South China Sea will be a priority because China claims almost the entirety of the strategic waterway and several ASEAN members complain about Beijing infringing on their own overlapping territorial claims there.
“The South China Sea is probably going to be one of the issues discussed during the ASEAN-plus-three meeting in light of recent tensions in the area,” said Aleksius Jemadu, professor at Pelita Harapan University in the capital Jakarta.
The waterway is an important shipping route and is crucial for both Tokyo’s and Seoul’s global supply chains.
Western and Asian powers have been rattled by Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in the region, where it is applying pressure on self-ruled Taiwan and its patrol vessels have clashed with other nations’ ships.
The crisis in coup-racked Myanmar will also be on the list of topics to be addressed because it is a thorny issue that divides ASEAN members, said Teuku Rezasyah, international relations expert at Padjadjaran University.
“Japan and South Korea have an interest to prevent Myanmar from joining China’s orbit,” he said.
Recent meetings of the group have discussed ways to better cooperate on health and economic recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic to make the Asia-Pacific region one of the dominant drivers of global economic growth.
ASEAN ministerial meetings will also be held around Thursday’s ASEAN-plus-three talks with countries that will be taking part in Friday’s 18-nation East Asia Summit.
That includes India, New Zealand, Australia, Russia, China, Japan, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Jakarta on Thursday morning and will meet ASEAN members the next day.