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In a key summit over the weekend, Japan hit out at activity that “runs counter to the rule of law and openness” in the troubled waters – though it did not explicitly name China. However, the two nations have long been in a fierce battle over territory, coming to blows on multiple occasions.
Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga further risked unrest by expressing “grave concern” over the situation in Hong Kong following China’s controversial national security law on the region.
The East Asia Summit, made up of 18 members including the US, China, Japan and South Korea, met virtually.
Leaders spoke out about the South China Sea amid speculation about what the US’ policy towards the region will be under assumed future-president Joe Biden.
China, meanwhile, has moved to cement ties with members of the Associations of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.
This is despite tensions with ASEAN members such as the Philippines and Vietnam because of conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Beijing claims sovereignty over almost all of the waters, shored up by military exercises and the construction of artificial islands.
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The meeting was the first one to have taken place since Donald Trump lost the US election this month.
The sitting president was notably absent from the meeting for the fourth year in a row.
Instead, he sent national security advisor Robert O’Brien, who participated on Mr Trump’s behalf.
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Analysts are rushing to predict what Mr Biden’s presidency will mean for the US’ relationship with China, and for tensions in the South China Sea and with Taiwan in particular.
The small island nation has formed key ties with the US with Mr Trump as leader.
Under his administration, senior US officials have visited Taiwan for diplomatic talks while arms sales from the US to Taiwan have been stepped up.
Such friendly ties have prompted furious reactions from Beijing. Earlier this month, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said US arms sales to the Taiwan “brutally interferes in China’s internal affairs”.
He urged the US to cancel the sales “so as to avoid further damage to China-U.S. relations and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”.
China sees Taiwan as part of its own territory, though this is disputed in Taiwan itself.
Now, analysts say Taiwan is hoping to continue its close relationship with the US under future-president Biden.
Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s representative to Washington spoke to US ambassador Antony Blinken last week to discuss the matter.
She said on Twitter: “Spoke to Biden policy adviser Antony Blinken to convey Taiwan’s congratulations to the president-elect.
“Appreciated bipartisan support for US relations with Taiwan and hope to continue close cooperation with the US in coming years.”
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