Guest Column

China Has Its Way With a Divided, Inert ASEAN

By Thitinan Pongsudhirak 19 June 2021

The ASEAN-China foreign ministers’ meeting early this month in Chongqing was crucial for its timing and circumstances. Co-chaired by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin, it was the first “in-person” meeting among foreign ministers of both sides since the COVID-19 period began early last year.

Meetings in the flesh are critical to ASEAN’s inner workings as a diplomatic community because the strengths of Southeast Asia’s 10-member regional organization lie in informality and interaction at social gatherings. The Chongqing meeting provided strategic and symbolic benefits for Beijing and reassurances to ASEAN, enabling China to peddle its geostrategic interests and agenda while keeping its Belt and Road Initiative grand strategy on track.

Among the highlights that Wang noted, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea, a proposed ASEAN-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, and “Asian values” were most salient. Conspicuously absent in the Chinese statement was the Myanmar crisis, which was the most pressing concern between the two sides. For ASEAN, the key issues were COVID-19 and pandemic recovery, the South China Sea and Myanmar. The meeting ended on an optimistic and forward-looking note. China felt confident that its agenda was intact and in progress, while ASEAN foreign ministers had an opportunity to air their collective concerns.

Broadly, there is a sense among regional think-tank analysts and commentators that China is making steady progress in stamping its regional role and agenda. The US may have more “stock” from its entrenched role and influence since World War II, but the “flow” of China’s expansionist maneuvers as a rising superpower in Southeast Asia is inexorable and indispensable as a regional economic locomotive.

Part of it has to do with geography. China is a giant resident neighbor that cannot be denied. The US, by contrast, is not only a faraway superpower with domestic divisions, but it has also fallen behind in “soft power” and the fight for “hearts and minds” in Southeast Asia. As widely noted, it took the administration of President Joe Biden five months to send a senior official, namely Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, to visit Southeast Asia, stopping by Jakarta, Phnom Penh and Bangkok.

The follow-up virtual conference between her boss, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, with ASEAN counterparts did not materialize due to technical difficulties. Meanwhile, Blinken visited the Middle East and Biden toured Europe for the G7 meeting in moves that made ASEAN leaders question US priorities, leaving China as the necessary alternative superpower to deal with. All eyes will be on Washington’s role and level of representation at the ASEAN-centered summits later this year.

For China, the three main priorities that drove the Chongqing agenda were Myanmar, COVID-19 and the South China Sea. On Myanmar, China has its own issues with Myanmar’s armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw. Beijing counts on natural gas and CMEC (China-Myanmar Economic Corridor) projects with geostrategic linkage from Yunnan through Myanmar to the Indian Ocean. Myanmar is a vital piece of China’s geostrategic jigsaw puzzle. Senior Chinese officials have expressed more than once their displeasure with the Feb. 1 coup. Yet China (together with Russia) has protected Myanmar’s military regime at the UN Security Council, pre-empting and diluting what otherwise would have been tough and damning resolutions.

But on the ground, Beijing is concerned about rising anti-Chinese sentiment, including popular attacks and arson acts against Chinese businesses. In many ways, the Tatmadaw has China snookered; not quite blackmailed, but squeezed to the extent that China needs Myanmar more than Myanmar’s Tatmadaw needs China. Before the coup, China’s top leadership had met and dealt cordially with now-imprisoned opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Back then, China had already figured out where Myanmar fitted in Beijing’s BRI and broader geostrategic mix.

The coup changed all that, forcing Beijing to rethink and refashion the China-Myanmar relationship. This is why the Chongqing meeting was an opportunity for China to prod ASEAN to do something after the grouping held a special summit on Myanmar on April 24, coming up with a “five-point” consensus that has gone nowhere. After nearly two months, ASEAN is still divided and undecided about its envoy structure and format.

On COVID-19, China had an easier time. It capitalized on earlier “mask diplomacy” and “vaccine diplomacy”. Most ASEAN countries, except Myanmar and Vietnam, have used Sinovac and Sinopharm from donations and sales. China also has gained credit for being first-in and first-out of the pandemic crisis, keeping new infections to a minimum for such a large population in contrast to the US and Europe. Here, the US is trying to catch up with a recent 500 million dose donation to Covax, the international vaccine program. But the US’ vaccine move is unfocused, as opposed to China’s targeted vaccine diplomacy to shore up its BRI partners and global influence. There is still time on the clock for the vaccine race but the US must move faster and smarter if it is to reach parity with China’s post-pandemic standing.

On the South China Sea, the meeting was more perfunctory. According to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Wang urged leaders to “reach the COC [Code of Conduct] at an early date”, repeating previous calls. Similarly, the South China Sea issues are between China and ASEAN claimant states, not to be interfered with by outside powers. With ASEAN’s fragmented stand on Myanmar and the South China Sea, the COC is likely to continue to idle while maritime tensions rise.

For Washington, amid these dynamics, there is a rising specter of the “Quad”—which groups Australia, India, Japan and the US—replacing the “hub/spokes” alliance system in the US’ dealing with China under Biden, in contrast to the Barack Obama administration, when ASEAN centrality was granted a leading role. This is where Obama and Biden are fundamentally different despite obvious similarities and continuities hailing from the same Democratic Party and sharing policy experts. Obama was more accommodating and cooperative vis-à-vis Beijing. By the time Biden came to the White House, the bipartisan consensus in US policymaking circles had solidified, fingering China as a geostrategic rival and competitor. While Washington has a clear view of China, it is still fuzzy on what to do about it.

Overall, the recent ASEAN-China foreign ministers’ meeting sought to reassure and ensure that bilateral relations are motoring ahead. The 30th dialogue anniversary served as a timely occasion in view of the Chinese Communist Party’s centennial this year. The US is in catchup mode in Southeast Asia. Its values agenda on rights/freedoms and democracy must be better operationalized and resourced to be more effective. Other countries in the fray, such as Japan and Australia, must think long and hard about where to go and how to deal with Beijing’s regional clout while the US’ footing under Biden is not yet firm and the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy is still inchoate, while India has its hands full at home.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is a professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science.

This article first appeared in The Bangkok Post.


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