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US seeks to dial down tension over Taiwan Strait

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday said Beijing had acted irresponsibly in halting cooperation with the United States on topics including defense and climate change, as he sought to reassure Southeast Asian countries over raging tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

Meanwhile, China pressed forward with its major military exercise around Taiwan for a third day on Saturday, with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) apparently staging a simulated attack on Taiwan’s main island, Taipei’s Defense Ministry said.

“Since their missile launches, Beijing has taken an irresponsible step of a different kind:  They’ve shut down eight different areas where our two countries have been able to work together,” the top U.S. diplomat said during a press conference Saturday in Manila.

Beijing announced the “countermeasures” on Friday in response to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan, freezing bilateral dialogue on several military-to-military channels as well as talks on the climate crisis, repatriation of illegal immigrants, counter-narcotics and legal assistance in criminal matters.

“The world’s largest carbon emitter is now refusing to engage on combating the climate crisis.  Suspending climate cooperation doesn’t punish the United States; it punishes the world, particularly the developing world,” Blinken said. 

While Beijing appeared to have halted live-firing exercises around Taiwan, multiple Chinese military aircraft and vessels operated near Taiwan on Saturday, some of them crossing the median line dividing the Taiwan Strait, the ministry said in a statement.

The Taiwanese military sent warnings, scrambled aircraft and deployed defense missile systems to track the Chinese military planes, the statement said.

Blinken, traveling from Cambodia where he attended ASEAN meetings, said that the U.S. government was determined to avoid a crisis and to deescalate the tensions.

“The United States is not going to engage in any provocative actions of our own,” Blinken told the Voice of America in an interview late Friday in Phnom Penh, transcripts of which were released to the press Saturday. “We think the seas should be calmed.”

“The Taiwan Strait is of vital importance to virtually every country in the region.  So much commerce goes through there.  If that were interrupted, it would have a terrible impact on the global economy and on everyone’s desire to recover from COVID,” Blinken stressed.

“So I think it’s incumbent upon all countries – the United States, but also China – to act responsibly and not use the visit of a member of our Congress as a pretext for engaging in potentially dangerous and destabilizing actions,” he added. 

Nonetheless, he noted that the U.S. House Speaker had every right to make the recent trip to Taiwan, and that China’s reaction by launching 11 ballistic missiles and deploying its ships around the region “is so disproportionate and so dangerous.”

Meeting with Marcos

The U.S. diplomat met with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Saturday morning, and underlined the two sides’ long-standing alliance.

Blinken is the highest-ranking U.S. official to travel to the country since the inauguration of Marcos, the son and namesake of the late dictator whom Washington helped flee into exile in Hawaii after a 1986 “people power” uprising.

“We’re committed to the Mutual Defense Treaty. We’re committed to working with you on shared challenges,” Blinken said, referring to a 1951 pact between Manila and Washington that binds both sides to come to each other’s aid in times of aggression from outside forces.

The U.S. government has repeatedly cited that partnership in the face of continued Chinese buildup in the disputed South China Sea region, where Beijing’s maritime claims overlap with those of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries.

He assured Marcos the United States would honor its commitments to the decades-old joint defense pact. “The alliance is strong and I believe can grow even stronger,” Blinken said.

Marcos, for his part, stressed the importance of the alliance amid the volatile outlook in the region even as he stated that Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan “did not raise the intensity” of tensions in the Taiwan Strait. 

“But nonetheless, this just demonstrates how volatile the international diplomatic scene is, not only in the region,” Marcos said. “So again, this just points to the fact of the importance of the relationship between the United States and the Philippines.”

He said that the MDT “is in constant evolution” while noting that the Philippines and the United States enjoyed a special relationship linked by shared history.

Marcos succeeded President Rodrigo Duterte in May after six years of a somewhat rocky relationship with Washington that saw the Philippines pulling away from its traditional ally in favor of Beijing. 

After meeting with Marcos, Blinken held a virtual meeting with his counterpart, Enrique Manalo, who earlier this week announced that he had contracted COVID-19. Manalo likewise reiterated the ties that bind the two nations, and the importance of keeping the peace over the Taiwan Strait.

“The Philippines continues of course to look at the big powers to help calm the waters and keep the peace,“ Manalo stressed. “We can ill afford any further escalation of tensions in the region.” Blinken responded by saying that Washington was ”determined to act responsibly, so that we avoid crisis, we avoid conflict.”

Beijing considers the self-ruling, democratic island a breakaway province, to be united with the mainland by force if necessary, and objects strongly to high-level U.S. visits. The United States does not recognize Taiwan diplomatically, as part of a One China policy demanded by Beijing, but retains close unofficial ties with Taipei and is obligated by law to provide it with defense capabilities.

Myanmar situation worsens

Meanwhile, Blinken said that the situation in Myanmar had deteriorated sharply, with the military regime there “totally unresponsive” to international calls for it to resolve the crisis there peacefully.

“Well, I think what we’ve seen, exactly as you say, is a situation that’s gone from bad to worse, including with the heinous act of executing four members of the democracy movement despite pleas from ASEAN, from Cambodia, from many others not to do that,” Blinken said, according to the VOA interview.

Blinken urged the junta to implement the five-point consensus that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had drafted earlier for Myanmar to return to the path to democracy. Failing to do so would unleash “more pressure on the regime – economic pressure, political pressure,” he warned.

“We have to press the regime to allow humanitarian assistance to reach people in Myanmar, and we should look at ways to make sure that weapons don’t get to the regime. So we’ll look at everything, including additional forms of economic pressure and sanctions,” Blinken said.

He said ASEAN was correct to exclude Myanmar’s foreign minister in recent meetings, but said moving forward the bloc would have to “look at what that means, including suspension of Myanmar.”

Jojo Riñoza and Basilio Sepe in Manila contributed to this report by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.