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Foreign Policy

ASEAN Wins with China Initiative

Apr 05, 2022
  • Peng Nian

    Assistant Fellow, National Institute for South China Sea Studies

On March 31, the foreign ministers of Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Myanmar traveled to China to discuss the Global Development Initiative, another significant program beyond the Belt and Road Initiative proposed by President Xi Jinping in the UN in September 2021. It was the second visit to China of the four foreign ministers of ASEAN member states, indicating a closer China-ASEAN relations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-ASEAN summit that had been scheduled for March 28 had to be postponed indefinitely due to the absence of almost all the ASEAN leaders. Only Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister of Singapore, paid a state visit to Washington. The very different responses of ASEAN leaders to China and the United States are a reflection of ASEAN’s rejection of Sino-U.S. confrontation as well as a demand for peace and development in the region.

The reason the foreign ministers of the four countries have different attitudes toward the two events mentioned involve the different ways that China and the U.S. engage with them. China knows what the ASEAN states really want — that is, peace and development — which is their top priority. The U.S., by contrast, has adopted the notion of “America first,” which emphasizes American interests over ASEAN interests. For instance, the U.S. has continued to press ASEAN member states to condemn Russia’s “invasion” of Ukraine without considering ASEAN’s neutral stance on great power rivalry and the unique relationship between some ASEAN states and Russia.

As some analysts have said, the U.S. overtly attempted to persuade ASEAN states to criticize Russia during the U.S.-ASEAN summit.  Most of the ASEAN member states have avoided criticizing Russia, and have not joined in economic sanctions against it.

On the eve of the summit, the U.S. scheduled the meeting with no advance consultation of ASEAN leaders. The White House simply announced that the summit would be held on March 28 and 29. As a result, the summit will be postponed. Moreover, the U.S. described the summit as a historical event and a part of its Indo-Pacific Strategy. It is evident that the U.S. is anxious to drag ASEAN into its power competition with China via the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Given the ongoing Ukraine crisis, in which the U.S. must confront Russia, the U.S. has tried to continue containing China in the Pacific region by fostering relations with its Asian allies and key partners, ASEAN included.

Yet, ASEAN has been neutral in the great power rivalry for decades. Being aware of U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy since its announcement by former American President Donald Trump, ASEAN member states have fully realized the high risks of getting involved in Sino-U.S. strategic competition in Asia. To consolidate its centrality in the region, ASEAN released its Indo-Pacific Outlook, an open and inclusive multilateral cooperation initiative.

Because ASEAN economies have suffered severely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent war between Russia and Ukraine, ASEAN member states are under great pressure to promote economic development and social stability. Therefore, economic recovery and social development are the top priorities of ASEAN governments. In this sense, China’s Global Development Initiative — not America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy —fills an urgent need for ASEAN, as the initiative responds to the dynamics and urgent needs of global development. It identifies priority areas, including poverty alleviation, food security, COVID-19 and vaccines, financing for development, climate change, green development, industrialization, the digital economy and connectivity.

Actually, China and ASEAN agreed to promote complementary aspects of ASEAN Community Vision 2025, the UN 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development and China’s proposed Global Development Initiative during the ASEAN-China Special Summit in November last year.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, China and ASEAN have cooperated closely in public health and development aid, drawing China-ASEAN relations closer than ever before. The China-ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership established in November is one of the main achievements of the close cooperation between China and ASEAN during the pandemic. Thus, China and ASEAN should continue to place peace and development as the top priority in the comprehensive strategic partnership.

Here are some policy recommendations that would enhance the China-ASEAN relationship over the next few years:

First, both sides could draft an action plan under the GDI to harvest early benefits. Second, anti-COVID cooperation, — mainly vaccinations and the bilateral green channel in border areas — should be maintained. Third, both sides should put high emphasis on food security during the Ukraine crisis and set up a multilateral mechanism on emergency supplies and assistance. Fourth, poverty reduction in some ASEAN member states (the Mekong Basin countries in particular) should be accelerated. Last but not least, policy coordination on global issues such as climate change, maritime pollution and green development between China and ASEAN could be made more effective.

The United States may draw lessons from the delay of the U.S.-ASEAN summit and come to care more about ASEAN’s interests. The U.S. needs to reinvigorate the economy of the ASEAN region rather than escalating tensions. U.S. economic engagements with the regional states are welcome, but strategic confrontation with China is not favorable for the regional states.

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