On June 7-8 in the Chinese city of Chongqing an annual meeting was held, bringing together foreign ministers from China and participating nations from ASEAN. This is not the only platform for discussing bilateral relations between the two sides. However, it is the most important after a summit.
It is important to note that this association unites all ten nations of the Southeast Asia region, which is increasing its importance in the global game that key super powers take part in. The author refers, above all, to China and the United States with both sides in recent years demonstrating their respective military might and whose all encompassing confrontation has recently manifested itself off-land near the coast of China. Half of this area consists of the South China sea, whose waters wash the shores of the countries of ASEAN.
The strategic importance of the South China sea is due to it being an important trade route for shipping, through which hydrocarbon energy carriers are transported from the Persian gulf and from Africa to China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, all of which are major global economies. It is even suggested now that beneath the South China sea potentially lie huge amounts of energy resources comparable to the world’s largest oil and gas fields. Moreover, the South China sea is home to numerous shallow reefs, where the fish population is high, and thus provides employment for the people who live along its coastline.
These two points are of significant importance for the ASEAN nations as China claims ownership of 80-90% of the South China sea, which explains the difficult state of relations between almost all the ASEAN countries with China. It is especially difficult for Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and also Malaysia, which all claim a small part of the territory as their own.
In 2013, the previous leadership of the Philippines (strongly anti-China and pro-American) applied to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague with a lawsuit contesting the validity of China’s claims in the South China sea. In the summer of 2016, the PCA issued a statement rejecting the claims of historical rights by China.
However, China refused to participate in the trial and also did not recognize the court’s ruling. It should be noted that also in the summer of 2016, R. Duterte, the then head of government in the Philippines attempted to establish good relations with China (primarily in trade and mutual investment) despite supporting the ruling by the PCA. The relationship with the Philippines, in which both “economic positive” and “political negative” coexist in a contradictory manner, is in fact a ‘model’ for characterizing relations between China and the majority of other countries of ASEAN.
It is important to also note the recent and important trend stemming from Beijing in its foreign policy as a whole, which is having a positive impact on the relations primarily with countries in southeast Asia. This trend involves the reduction in China’s foreign policy of what Western well-wishers level call ‘assertiveness’, which until recently was a cause of concern for the PRCʼs partners.
The more China develops, the more noticeable this trend becomes. As a global power it realizes how counterproductive it is to try and resolve by force problems in relations with ‘weaker’ partners. These attempts only encourage the latter to seek support from Beijing’s geopolitical opponents, who in turn receive a ‘legal status’ for interfering with local politics in a region thousands of kilometers away from them.
Firstly, these include the US and Japan, who are developing their platforms for interaction with the countries in the region in the same ASEAN+1 way. Beijing (and not without reason) is suspicious of such activities of opponents here, denoting them with a blanket term ‘extra regional forces’.
The decrease in the level of ‘assertiveness’ that appeared in middle of the last decade, was accompanied by the strengthening of the business side in China’s foreign policy. This includes the fields of trade and investments, but also cooperation in the cultural and humanitarian fields.
ASEAN is China’s number one trade partner. At the end of 2020, total trade amounted to more than $730 billion. It is worth noting that Vietnam, for whom political relations with China is perhaps the most strained among all countries within ASEAN took fourth place the same year in the specified list, ahead of, for example, Germany. Since 2015, China and the countries of ASEAN have formed a free trade agreement.
The above transformation in China’s foreign policy strategy has had a positive impact on its relations both with ASEAN as a whole and with individual nation states. An important development in last November was the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) after many years of negotiations, which, alongside China and all ASEAN countries also included Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
Of course, relations between China and ASEAN nations are not without difficulties, as territorial disputes remain a hot topic. At the time, Western ‘well-wishers’ have focused their attention almost entirely on the fact that China has erected artificial islands with military bases in the South China sea. However, Vietnam and the Philippines are doing the same. Not on the same scale as China but theyʼre doing their best.
For 20 years there has been talk of a potential legally binding agreement (‘Code of conduct’, not to be confused with the ‘conduct declaration’) designed to regulate the actions of all parties in the South China sea. For all this time it has been said to be almost ready for signing. And yet it still has not materialized, which shows the complexities of the region as a whole.
This is, for the most part, the general outline of the situation in the region, which is consistently complicated by the ever growing military presence in the region from those very ‘extra regional forces’. And this is the backdrop the ministerial meeting between ASEAN and China took place against.
Before proceeding to briefly comment on it the author would like to pay some attention to the distinctive features of the structure of ASEAN (in comparison with the European Union, for example). This association has almost no bureaucratic apparatus and operates much like a family-run business with no in-fighting. This feature maintains a generally positive atmosphere within it, but alas at the expense of productivity. In this format and with the expected results (or lack thereof) an emergency meeting was held recently on the on-going events in Myanmar.
Naturally, the focus of the meeting in Chongqing was the Coronavirus pandemic, which for over a year and a half has disrupted all aspects of daily life and remains the main topic. Relatively calm in this regard, the situation in the countries of Southeast Asia has lately begun to deteriorate sharply. Moreover, the emergence of the more dangerous (e.g. ‘Indian’) variants of the coronavirus has been noted.
This question was the main subject in the speech made by Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, who expressed his readiness to assist the countries within the Association in the fight against the pandemic. Note that, once again, from the very beginning the Coronavirus issue turned out to be a fundamental component in international politics. In particular, the public vaccination of Philippine president R. Duterte with a Chinese vaccine in early May clearly was a huge political hint towards China.
But, of course, the agenda was not limited to the discussion of the coronavirus. The underlying complex relations between China and its neighbors became the subject for discussion. All parties agreed that there is room for development. In particular, Wang Yi outlined the prospect of turning these relations into a strategic partnership.
In the comments made by experts on the eve and after the ministerial meeting between ASEAN and China, special attention was paid to the fact that it was held in the context of the growing attempts by United States to form an anti-Chinese regional military and political alliance. Its core should be a four-way configuration (QUAD) between the United States, Japan, India and Australia. It would therefore be desirable for Washington if members of ASEAN join it. Their recent invitation (on the last working day) to a G7 ministerial meeting should be considered in this regard.
China’s policy, which has recently been amended (as indicated above) is aimed at preventing the plans made by its main geopolitical opponent in relation to ASEAN.
And the ministerial meeting between ASEAN and China was an important event within the framework of this political course.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.