Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is in Cambodia from August 3 to 5, attending a series of ASEAN and “ASEAN-Plus” meetings. Wang’s visit comes amid the highest tensions in the Taiwan Strait has seen in over 20 years, with Chinese holding live-fire military drills in areas surrounding the island of Taiwan from Thursday through Sunday.
China’s military exercises, which sent missiles flying over the island to splash down in waters to its east and saw fighters and naval vessels repeatedly cross the median line in the Taiwan Strait, are a response to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan on Wednesday. Pelosi became the highest-ranking U.S. leader to visit Taiwan since 1997, despite strident warnings from Beijing that its military “would not sit idly by.”
With military tensions in the Taiwan Strait spiking, both the U.S. and China are eager to lay out their respective positions on the issue during the current rounds of ASEAN foreign minister meetings. Washington’s position is that congressional visits to Taiwan are routine and that there is no change to the United States’ Taiwan policy. “I want to emphasize: nothing has changed about our position and I hope very much that Beijing will not manufacture a crisis or seek a pretense to increase its aggressive military action,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the ASEAN-U.S. ministerial meeting in Cambodia.
China, however, has accused the United States of “playing the dirty tricks to encroach upon China’s sovereignty under the guise of ‘democracy,’” as Wang put it in an interview given on the sidelines of the ASEAN meetings. Both before and after Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, Chinese officials have repeatedly said the visit was a provocation, and the U.S. would have the “bear the consequences.”
“If China does not resolutely resist the rash, irresponsible, and extremely irrational actions of the United States, then the principle of respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity in international relations will be empty words on paper,” Wang added, arguing that this would embolden “all types of separatist and extremist forces.”
Wang and Blinken are not expected to have a bilateral meeting while both are in Phnom Penh this week.
China has been trying to drum up support for its position in the sideline meetings, especially with Cambodia, the current ASEAN chair and China’s closest partner in Southeast Asia. In fact, the Chinese read-out of Wang’s meeting with Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn began with the Cambodian official slamming recent U.S. actions for having “infringed on China’s sovereignty, violated its own promises, added to tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and fully laid bare [U.S.] hypocrisy and hegemonic behavior.”
“Cambodia firmly adheres to the One China policy and believes Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory,” the statement summarized Prak Sokhonn as saying, adding that Cambodia “supports China in safeguarding its legitimate rights and interests and supports China’s making a resolute response to the United States’ provocative actions.”
The Cambodian read-out was more subdued on the issue, notably avoiding any direct criticisms of the United States. Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry said that the two ministers had “discussed the recent development in the Taiwan Strait” and that the deputy prime minister “expressed his concerns and underlined the Royal Government of Cambodia’s consistent and firm position to adhere to the ‘One China Policy.’” Cambodia’s version of the meeting added that Phnom Penh “consider[s] the issues related to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang the internal affairs and under the sovereign rights of the People’s Republic of China.”
While Wang apparently came on strong about the Taiwan issue in the meeting with his Cambodian counterpart, he did not take the same tone in all his meetings. In the ASEAN-China foreign ministers’ meeting, for example, there was no direct mention of “Taiwan” or the “Taiwan Strait.” Instead, Wang referred to “the provocative behavior of the United States infringing on China’s sovereignty” at the very end of the Chinese read-out.
China’s Foreign Ministry added that “All parties expressed their adherence to the One China policy and support for China’s defense of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The statement also pointed to ASEAN’s separate statement on the Taiwan issue as confirming that ASEAN member states “carefully abide by the One China principle.”
The actual ASEAN statement, however, took a more nuanced stance. It does not mention the “One China principle,” but reiterates “ASEAN Member States’ support for their respective One-China Policy.” (The difference between the two is complex, but to summarize: embracing the “One China principle” involves a direct recognition that Taiwan is part of China’s territory, while the “One China policy” simply commits a specific government not to recognize the government of Taiwan.)
The ASEAN statement also “calls for maximum restraint” and tells unidentified parties to “refrain from provocative actions.” That could easily be directed at China, the United States, or (most likely) a bit of both. Neither Pelosi’s visit nor China’s unprecedented military drills around Taiwan could be described as an example of “maximum restraint.”
The ASEAN statement warned that recent developments in the Taiwan Strait (without actually mentioning what has happened) “could destabilize the region and eventually could lead to miscalculation, serious confrontation, open conflicts and unpredictable consequences among major powers.” It also emphasized the need for “peaceful dialogue between all parties” and offered to help mediate “to deescalate tension, to safeguard peace, security and development in our region.”
Meanwhile, the foreign ministers of the G-7 group – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States – issued their own statement, which is closely in line with the U.S. position. The ministers said they were concerned about “recent and announced threatening actions by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), particularly live-fire exercises and economic coercion, which risk unnecessary escalation.”
“There is no justification to use a visit as pretext for aggressive military activity in the Taiwan Strait. It is normal and routine for legislators from our countries to travel internationally,” the statement said. “The PRC’s escalatory response risks increasing tensions and destabilizing the region.”
China harshly dismissed the statement, as former imperialist powers “bullying” China. “We no longer live in a world where the imperialist powers could run roughshod over Chinese people on Chinese soil,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said on August 4.
“Today’s China is not the old China humiliated and bullied over 100 years ago. It is time for these people to wake up from their imperial dream.”
Hua also noted that China had cancelled its meeting with the Japanese foreign minister in response to Japan’s inclusion in the G-7 statement.
Hua then provided a lengthy list of China’s backers, claiming statements of support from Russia, Pakistan, Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Sudan, Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Greece, Serbia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. But there were major differences between the positions expressed by these countries, ranging from Russia (whose foreign minister denounced the United States for “create[ing] such an annoying almost out of the blue”) to countries like Greece and Vietnam, who merely reiterated their own commitments to the One China policy.