OPED by Ambassador Gurjit Singh
The renewed Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, made his first overseas visit. Unsurprisingly, it is to Singapore, Malaysia, and Cambodia within ASEAN. This visit comes after the renewed tension between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea.
It also comes at a time when Australia, the US, and several partners held the biennial Talisman Sabre exercise and the Quad its Malabar exercise In July-August 2023.
The visit to the three ASEAN countries is stated to ‘enhance strategic communication’ and is Wang Yi’s first official trip after his reemergence as foreign minister on 25 July.
Earlier, Chinese coast guard ships aggressively fired water cannon at Philippine ships supplying outposts at the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. That Shoal is claimed by both Beijing and Manila and is part of the contestation of the nine-dash line.
The US and Japan backed the latter in this increased tension between China and the Philippines. The US issued clear statements supporting Philippine claims to the shoal China has heckled about, accusing the Philippines of excessive and offensive behavior.
In a call with his Philippine colleague, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed the “ironclad nature of the U.S.-Philippines alliance.” The US is committed to strengthening training, interoperability, and support for the modernization of the Philippine military.
The International Tribunal in The Hague in 2016 rejected China’s claims of historical rights inside the ‘nine-dash line’ in the South China Sea. The Second Thomas Shoal was noted in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone. China refuses to abide by the tribunal’s decision and asserts control in the area.
What Does Wang Yi’s Visit To ASEAN Mean?
What does this make of Wang Yi’s visit to three ASEAN countries eagerly awaiting a conclusion of the Code of Conduct (CoC), which has been negotiated for two decades since 2002?
If the situation was now seemingly conducive to progress on the matter, the clashes around the nine-dash line in the Philippines show how important the CoC is and why it should be binding on China not to bully its friends in ASEAN.
Suppose the visit was to assuage Singapore, Malaysia, and Cambodia. In that case, the South China Sea remains a common interest of ASEAN countries, who want to avoid security challenges and military confrontation with China. That will invariably draw in the United States and possibly other Quad countries.
It is unclear what discussion occurred on CoC because the public statements are about keeping the region safe and secure and not letting a Taiwan crisis emerge. Typically, Cambodia, a close ally of China, was more vocal in supporting the Chinese position on Taiwan, whereas, in Singapore and Malaysia, there was a more muted response.
For ASEAN countries, Taiwan is becoming a concern. They want to avoid big power rivalry in the region, which means the US-China rivalry must not come to a point where ASEAN countries must make difficult choices.
ASEAN engages with the Quad, the US, and others through various means, just as they engage with China. When China steps up its provocative behavior as it has with the Philippines, then ASEAN countries need to rethink: With what serious intent is China pursuing the CoC?
The CoC is a confidence-building measure to keep actions in check. What is happening is that the Philippines is suffering from Chinese aggression rather than peaceful solutions being found.
Nevertheless, Wang’s visit had important connotations in Singapore. Besides meeting his counterpart, Foreign Minister Balakrishnan, he met Prime Minister Lee and his designated successor, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong.
The BRI Angle
Since 2013, China is Singapore’s largest trading partner, and Singapore supports the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Singapore benefits from Chinese tour groups, even though flights between Singapore and China have not attained pre-pandemic levels.
Wong supported China’s interest in joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which Japan and Australia are wary of. Singapore welcomed China’s application to the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA) among Singapore, Chile, and New Zealand to facilitate the digital economy.
In Malaysia, Wang met with his counterpart and other leaders, and Malaysia, too, is a beneficiary of the BRI. The East Coast Rail Link and “Two Countries, Twin Parks” projects are under the BRI. China is also its largest trading partner since 2013.
With Cambodia, the relationship is more profound. Not only is Cambodia dependent on China for aid, trade, and investment, it is a vocal supporter of the BRI. With its new port facilities at Ream naval base offered to China, there is growing concern that a Chinese base in the region is emerging.
The “diamond hexagon” bilateral cooperation framework is moving ahead. More importantly, Wang was among the first leaders to meet the new Cambodian Prime Minister Designate Hun Manet, the son of Hun Sen and the military chief.
This was two days after the announcement of the succession plan, which secured Chinese support. He also met the Deputy Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister-designate.
ASEAN Summit And China
China believes that ASEAN is its zone of friendship, and whatever it may do there, countries will not challenge China beyond a point. The economic engagement, the attributes of the BRI, and steadfast participation by Chinese leaders in ASEAN-related meetings are of importance to ASEAN.
Indonesia’s chairmanship of ASEAN will conclude later this year with the ASEAN Summit, followed by ASEAN plus one engagement with its partners at the Summit level and the East Asia Summit. This is the high point for Indonesia in 2023. It is also Jokowi’s swansong because his presidential term ends next year.
Chinese participation is generally at the level of the premier at these events and adds luster to ASEAN-centric meetings. This year they may miss the presence of US President Joe Biden despite altering the dates to come close to India’s G20 Summit.
China provides the ASEAN summits with political heft since the Russians don’t participate at a senior level.
At the same time, China is expected to hold the following BRI forum, which has been delayed. Given the more significant contention in the world, China wants more countries to participate. This was one of the items Wang Yi discussed during his ASEAN Safari.
The BRI and its impact on its partner countries are notable, but in a cleaved world, the kind of large-scale participation, even from G7 countries that occurred in the past, is now unlikely.
China is wooing its friends to ensure an appropriate turnout of leaders since 37 attended the last BRI Forum in 2019. This will mark the 10th anniversary of the BRI, and China has yet to announce dates for it.
- Gurjit Singh is a former Ambassador to Germany, Indonesia, Ethiopia, ASEAN, and the African Union Chair, CII Task Force on Trilateral Cooperation in Africa, Professor, IIT Indore.
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