The United States, China and Japan squared off over maritime security at a regional summit on Wednesday, with U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida taking part in the online meeting for the first time since they took office.
The virtual gathering of the East Asia Summit took place as tensions between the United States and China have been intensifying recently over several issues in the Asia-Pacific region, such as the South and East China seas and the Taiwan Strait.
Biden's participation in the meeting underscored that the United States has been keen to regain its influence in the region, while China has been trying to bolster relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Donald Trump, Biden's predecessor, was absent from the regional summit for all four years he was president, drawing criticism for his perceived lack of interest in Southeast Asia.
Noting the "enduring" U.S. commitment to the Indo-Pacific, Biden expressed concern over "threats" to the international rules-based order and vowed to stand with allies and partners in support of democracy, human rights, rule of law and freedom of the seas, the White House said.
The United States will explore with partners "the development of an Indo-Pacific economic framework" which would define their "shared objectives" around trade facilitation, standards for the digital economy and technology, supply chain resiliency, clean energy, infrastructure and other areas, Biden was quoted as saying.
Claiming sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, China has built a number of artificial islands with military infrastructure there. The United States has responded by sending warships to the waters to assert its right to freedom of navigation.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the summit expressed unhappiness with the U.S. move in the sea, saying that thanks to the joint efforts of China and ASEAN countries, "the situation in the South China Sea has maintained overall stability and there has never been a problem with the freedom of navigation and overflight," according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
Saying that maintaining peace, stability and the freedom of navigation and overflight in the sea serves the common interests of all parties, Li voiced hope that all parties support regional countries in making the South China Sea a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation, the news agency said.
Following the summit, Kishida, who became prime minister in early October, told reporters that he conveyed Japan's "firm stance" on maritime security in the South and East China seas to leaders of other countries.
Kishida added that he also touched on the issues of China's alleged human rights abuses against the Muslim Uyghur minority in the far-western Xinjiang region, the crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong and the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as he attended a series of ASEAN-related summits the same day.
China has conflicting territorial claims with four ASEAN members -- Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam -- as well as Taiwan in the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which more than one-third of global trade passes.
Beijing also claims the Senkakus, a group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea administered by Japan. China has frequently sent its coast guard ships near the chain of islets, which it calls Diaoyu.
The Japanese government said some countries expressed concerns during the meeting over the situation in the South China Sea as well as human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
The crisis in Myanmar, in which political confusion has been lingering since the military ousted the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi in the February coup, was also apparently one of the major agenda items at the East Asia Summit.
The East Asia Summit comprises ASEAN -- which groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam -- plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the United States.
Myanmar's military leader, however, was excluded from the meeting after the junta refused to allow an ASEAN special envoy to meet with Suu Kyi and other opposition figures.
Kishida expressed his eagerness to work toward addressing the situation in Myanmar, such as through the provision of humanitarian assistance.
As for Taiwan, Biden late last week said the United States is committed to defending the self-ruled democratic island if China mounts an attack on it, apparently contradicting Washington's long-standing policy to keep its stance on the matter ambiguous.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin swiftly reacted to Biden's remarks, saying, "No one should underestimate the Chinese people's strong determination, firm will and strong ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity."
China and Taiwan have been governed separately since they split in 1949 as the result of a civil war.
Relations have deteriorated since independence-leaning Tsai Ing-wen became Taiwan's president in 2016. The mainland considers the island a renegade province.