25 February 2020

China dreams big in ASEAN

Chinese leaders are busy.

(I’m 100 percent serious, and not joking about Network News, the primetime news program of state broadcaster China Central Television. The program’s three segments, viewed as a political barometer, has been a constant butt of jokes: the first 10 minutes talk about how busy the leaders are, the next 10 about how happy the Chinese people are, and the final 10 about how chaotic other places in the world are.)

Just after President Xi Jinping came back from his Southeast Asian tour that took him to the APEC meeting in Bali, Premier Li Keqiang left for the same region not only for the ASEAN summit meetings but also to pay official visits to Thailand and Vietnam.

For weeks, China’s state media have been trumpeting the great relations between China and the ASEAN and the success of Chinese leaders in “creating a good atmosphere” in each and every one of their overseas trips.

But it is wrong to think that all of these trips are just a formality.

Just like how the United States views Latin America, China is increasingly regarding Southeast Asia as its backyard. Against the backdrop of the US pivot to the region, the competition, visible or otherwise, heats up between the world’s top two economies for a larger influence, if not control, of the region.

An oft-cited piece of history to highlight China’s deep-rooted links with Southeast Asia is Zheng He, arguably the greatest Chinese mariner whose sea voyages made six centuries ago included Southeast Asia. Chinese publicists picture Zheng as an envoy of peace and goodwill. But history is quite clear that when Zheng made his voyages, many Southeast Asian countries were subordinate to China.

It may be a bit of a stretch to say that China wants to put these countries under its wings once again, but it is not unfair to say that Beijing wants to expand its influence in the region.

By supporting and being part of the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership free trade agreement, China is trying to draw the ASEAN away from the US-initiated Trans-Pacific Partnership.

US President Barack Obama’s absence from the APEC and ASEAN meetings because of the US government shutdown is seen as providing a good opportunity for China to gain some ground in bolstering its ties with the region.

The US leader is aware of this, and said of his absence: “I’m sure the Chinese don’t mind that I’m not there right now.”

China is all the more ambitious and tweaking its strategy in the region.

The economy used to be Beijing’s trump card to win the hearts and minds of the people in Southeast Asia. This time around, China offered to upgrade its free trade agreement with the ASEAN.

But the economy is not the only field of battle. China now wants to march on the turf of politics.

By offering to discuss the signing of a Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation with the ASEAN at the China-ASEAN summit last Wednesday, China aims to advance political rapport with the 10-member bloc that includes a US ally, the Philippines.

Clearly, Beijing doesn’t want to see Manila reaping the benefits of economic ties on the one hand and defying it on the territorial issue on the other.

China’s strategy on sea disputes has two layers. First, it insists on bilateral talks to fend off US influence. Second, it wants to prevent countries with sea disputes with China from linking arms to advance their cause. Beijing’s wish is to separate these countries and deal with them one by one.

But the effect of Beijing’s efforts remains to be seen.

The ASEAN itself is not closely bonded politically. In terms of relations with China, the 10 members could be poles apart. That means, if just one of them remains opposed to a proposal, the bloc as a whole cannot say yes. As a result, the ASEAN did not respond positively to what China has laid on the table. The group, as a body, only had a lukewarm reaction to the proposed upgrade of the China-ASEAN FTA, security cooperation on the seas, defense ministers’ special meeting and the establishment of an Asian infrastructure investment bank.

The ASEAN’s reluctance is easy to understand. The group has a habit of striking a balance among the world’s big powers, a pragmatism that has helped fuel its economic development since the end of the Cold War.

While the world’s two largest economies are vying for expanded clout in the region and eager to make good offers, there is indeed no need for the ASEAN to choose a side.

Zhang Xinmo, a commentator based in Beijing, has been a journalist for more than 10 years in China and Hong Kong. He writes mostly on China’s economic issues.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]



The writer is an economic commentator. He writes mostly on business issues in Greater China.