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The fast-growing US-China tensions are driving Beijing to exchange reassurances with its Southeast Asian neighbours. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s 10-day visit to Southeast Asia earlier this month, closely followed by the recently concluded visit of Indonesian President Joko Widodo to China, are noteworthy developments in that regard.

President Jokowi’s China visit, which he smartly clubbed with Japan and South Korea to give an impression of being non-aligned to power politics of Northeast and East Asia, has been lauded as a successful one so much so that even Najib Razak, former Malaysian PM, praised Jokowi’s diplomatic moves, especially in terms of engaging China. Najib’s praise for Jokowi has a political hint attached with it targeting the current Malaysian government.

Often considered primus inter pares in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region, Indonesia has been striving to maximise the gains of its middle power diplomacy, albeit the ground reality, while moving in a positive direction, is not as bold as one would have imagined.

During his visit, Wang Yi also underscored the importance of sustainable and peaceful relations between the two sides. He termed China as a ‘friend’ of countries of the region and spoke emphatically about the Asian way and ASEAN way to resolve disputes, including the South China Sea. However, contrasting developments are taking place in the region, throwing mixed signals about the evolving strategic dynamics and great power equations with ASEAN in the region.

For one, China has not shown much interest in trying to find a solution to the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Quite surprisingly, it is Indonesia that approached both Russia and Ukraine to mediate in the dispute. In fact, Jokowi even visited Ukraine to meet Volodymyr Zelenskyy to discuss the possibility of peace talks between Russia and Ukraine. He has invited both the leaders to the G20 Summit in November 2022.

China’s support to Russia has polarised global politics more than ever. China chose Russia’s side and this created a bigger wedge between China and the West. With this, the prospects of cordial and even manageable ties with the West seem bleak. While China and the EU (European Union) haven’t slammed their doors to each other, there is a re-thinking on both sides having taken cue from the Russia-Ukraine episode. China is redirecting its focus on Asia and narrow it down to smaller economies and regional countries that have regular contacts with China.

A subtle change in China’s demeanor towards Southeast Asia cannot go unnoticed. For instance, during his Southeast Asia visit, Wang Yi tried to give the impression that he was in Southeast Asia as a ‘friend’. China’s use of friendlier terms was earlier reserved either for the US or countries that have been its good friends such as Russia, Pakistan, and Myanmar.

Not surprising, therefore, that as a good ‘friend’ and ‘paukphaw’ to Myanmar, the Chinese foreign minister decided to visit to Myanmar and participate in the 7th Lancang-Mekong Cooperation. Wang’s inclusion of Myanmar in his Southeast Asia itinerary came as a surprise to many, especially when other countries are still weighing their options vis-à-vis Myanmar.

Even India, which shares a huge porous border with Myanmar and is relatively more conciliatory towards the Southeast Asian country, decided to skip Myanmar at the India-ASEAN Foreign Minister’s Meet in New Delhi in June 2022. By engaging the military junta, China has also scuttled ASEAN’s efforts. Whether that move was inadvertent or deliberate is yet to be confirmed.

China-Southeast Asia ties are multifaceted. Beijing engages the ASEAN countries at bilateral, sub-regional, and the multilateral levels. There is a greater focus on sub-regional cooperation in China’s Southeast Asia policy. Wang Yi also utilized the visit to Southeast Asia to meet most of his Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) counterparts either through Lancang-Mekong Cooperation meet or bilateral consultations in Indonesia and other four countries he visited.

Notable areas of cooperation at the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation mechanism include Chinese vaccines donation, connectivity and infrastructural development, and trade. It is noteworthy that these areas of cooperation are also the crux of the US’ Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and even the Quad. Interestingly, when China is banning imports of fruits and marine products from Taiwan, it is expanding agricultural imports from the ASEAN region. This demonstrates how such moves are political in nature and have little to do with mutual growth and cooperation.

China’s consistent attempts to portray that it believes in regional cooperation and growth is accompanied by a mission to convince the ASEAN countries that it is the US that is responsible for turning the region into an area of relentless competition and Cold War-style zero-sum game situation. China believes that its initiatives aide regional stability, whereas the US is creating a rift among countries. During his address at the ASEAN secretariat in Jakarta, Wang Yi warned ASEAN against being used as chess pieces by major powers (read the US).

Notwithstanding its relentless mission to protect and strengthen its image in Southeast Asia, words do not match China’s actions in the region. Despite such talks of friendships, the major irritant in the relations — the issue of the South China Sea — still exists and not much progress has been done. The only reference to the South China Sea was made with regard to Beijing’s pledge to speed up the code of conduct negotiations during his visit to Malaysia. On every Chinese visit to Southeast Asia or during the meetings between China and the ASEAN leaders/officials, same pledge has been made for years but nothing concrete has come of it.

China’s call for resolution of disputes and intra-regional bonding via Asian way and ASEAN way runs the risk of turning into an appallingly meaningless rhetoric unless it expeditiously takes some concrete steps to move forward in settling disputes with its Southeast and South Asian neighbours. An egalitarian and binding code of conduct to resolve the South China Sea dispute must be the first step in that regard.

Advising countries to stay away from the US-led initiatives such as the IPEF (Indo Pacific Economic Framework) without rectifying flaws in its own trade and investment approaches such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) might also prove counterproductive. If at all, China wants to counter the US in the region, it must start with honouring its commitments and show a more benign approach in settling its territorial dispute.


Rahul Mishra, PhD is Director, Centre for ASEAN Regionalism Universiti Malaya (CARUM), at the Asia-Europe Institute, Universiti Malaya, Malaysia, where he heads the European Studies programme. His latest publications include Asia and Europe in the 21st Century: New Anxieties, New Opportunities (Routledge, 2021), and India’s Eastward Engagement from Antiquity to Act East Policy (SAGE, 2019). He tweets @rahulmishr_.


Article was first published at CNN News18.

Last Update: 05/08/2022