China recently hinted at a change in how it would conduct its diplomacy going forward, and Southeast Asia may be its first pilot test. Amid turbulent relations with the West, China wants to “expand its circle of friends” and this may compel it to double down on its investment in neighborhood diplomacy. The special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers meeting in Chongqing on June 7 showcases how Beijing has been steadily courting the ten-member regional bloc in its backyard.
In early June, President Xi Jinping issued a statement that seems to indicate a reorientation on China’s messaging and diplomatic tenor. In a study session by the ruling Communist Party of China, he called on Chinese officialdom to “focus on setting the tone right, be open and confident but also modest and humble, and strive to create a credible, lovable and respectable image of China.” It is a welcome shift from the combative “wolf warrior” posture that has gained currency among Chinese diplomats of late, straining the country’s relations with major and middle powers near and far. Growing economic interdependence and cooperation in pandemic response make Southeast Asia a suitable stage to roll out this new approach. But the persistence of territorial and maritime disputes, and concerns about Chinese economic statecraft complicate Beijing’s attempt to change course.
The Chongqing meeting marks the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-China dialogue relations. The day after, China also hosted the sixth Lancang-Mekong Cooperation meeting - a sub-regional grouping of six riparian states along the mighty cross-border river which flows from Tibet to peninsular Southeast Asia. Among the issues tabled included water governance and water resource management - subjects that became sticking points since the building of several dams upstream. China and six mainland ASEAN countries also discussed the creation of a land-sea trade corridor that will allow China’s southwestern provinces, such as Yunnan, and landlocked Laos access to the sea along the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi also held talks with each of his ASEAN counterparts. This exposes a burgeoning web of bilateral and regional engagements that China is pursuing to promote its foreign policy goals in Southeast Asia. In fact, two days before the special meeting, China and Indonesia also held their inaugural high-level dialogue cooperation mechanism meeting in Guiyang where the two sides even reached a memorandum of understanding on maritime cooperation.
The meeting in the sprawling Chinese metropolis is the second time the foreign ministers of the eleven countries assembled during - if not despite - the pandemic after their initial gathering at Vientiane, Laos in February last year. But while the one in the Laotian capital focused on responding to the health crisis, the Chinese hosted convention covered greater ground. As ASEAN’s first in-person pandemic-era commemorative meeting with a dialogue partner, it is a vote of confidence for hosting party China. In late March and early April, Wang Yi also met his counterparts from Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines in Nanping in China’s coastal Fujian province.
The Chongqing meeting shows that Southeast Asia is moving from the periphery to the center of Chinese diplomacy. This trend is likely to get more traction as China’s ties with the West worsen. The region is fast becoming a theater for great power rivalry and its close proximity to China mean serious security implications should the region come under the influence of rivals. On its own, ASEAN’s importance to Chinese calculus also has strong economic impetus. In 2020, amid the U.S.-China trade war, ASEAN displaced the EU to become the largest trade partner of China. This reveals the growing two-way economic convergence with China serving as ASEAN’s largest trade partner for the twelfth consecutive year. The meeting tackled the broad range of areas where the interests of both sides intersect. This includes, among others, public health cooperation, vaccine production and distribution, synergy in infrastructure connectivity, early implementation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership - the world’s largest free trade agreement - and resumption of negotiations for a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea.
Waiving intellectual property rights for its Covid-19 vaccines to facilitate regional production will earn Beijing enormous goodwill. This is especially so as Southeast Asia faces fresh waves of infection brought by mutant strains. The move can credibly attest to Beijing keeping its earlier pledge to make its doses a global public good. The resumption of stalled China-backed infrastructure projects along with expanded access for regional goods entering the Chinese market can help spur regional economic recovery. Fast-tracking the conclusion of an effective COC may go a long way in preventing - if not minimizing - untoward incidents in the contested South China Sea.
Vaccine co-production can have an instant game changer effect on the region’s capability to defeat the pandemic. Meanwhile, increased Chinese outbound capital and a blockbuster trade deal can help the region recuperate from the recession in the short to medium-term. However, recent Chinese actions in the South China Sea, notably the massing of Chinese vessels - some of which were considered part of a state-sanctioned maritime militia - in the Philippines’ western exclusive economic zone, and intrusion of Chinese aircraft into Malaysian airspace, only sows more seeds of mistrust. Such behavior does not contribute in fostering a conducive climate to pursue talks to manage disputes over the flashpoint.
ASEAN’s acceptance of China’s diplomatic hospitality underpin how regional countries see China’s role in their individual and collective future. Some members may have compromised - likely grudgingly - their interests in the South China Sea in return for getting China to throw its weight in support of defusing the political crisis in Myanmar. It is a recognition of the numerous levers Beijing possesses and can put to bear to elicit response from regional countries, whether in accommodation or pushback.