By Shailaja Neelakantan
Post-coup Myanmar, the disputed South China Sea, and a response to a new United States-led defense pact may be the main issues discussed at next week’s special ASEAN-China Summit to mark 30 years of bilateral relations, political analysts said.
However, China’s reported wish for a breakthrough on a Code of Conduct for parties in the South China Sea likely won’t happen at the Nov. 22 summit, as Southeast Asian claimant-nations deal with Beijing’s escalated actions and militarization in the disputed waterway.
Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and leaders of Association of Southeast Asian Nations member-states are expected to attend the meeting, which the regional bloc and Beijing will host jointly. It will be their second bilateral meeting this year, and the first since ASEAN upgraded its ties with Beijing and Australia.
“AUKUS and Myanmar as well as South China Sea … are among the topics that would be the focus in the ASEAN-China Summit,” James Chin, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of Tasmania, told BenarNews.
“It will be an opportunity for China to try to use AUKUS as leverage against the West.”
Under the new three-nation pact, the United States and the United Kingdom will help Australia get nuclear-powered submarines, in an attempt to counter China’s clout and military expansionism in the Indo-Pacific.
ASEAN-China summits are usually focused on “not-so-sensitive things such as trade and investment,” Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat, a lecturer in international relations at the Islamic University of Indonesia, told BenarNews.
Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanee Sangrat indicated that sensitive issues will not be discussed.
“The meeting will underline the three decades of the cordial relationship and is to support China’s constructive roles, which promote peace and stability in the region,” Tanee told BenarNews via text message.
But, according to Rakhmat, “recent geopolitical developments mean it’s likely that this year’s ASEAN-China summit will discuss political and security issues.”
AUKUS is one of those big geopolitical developments that Beijing has fulminated against, saying it threatens stability in Southeast Asia.
China would want ASEAN member-states on its side, but the regional bloc’s member-states are divided over AUKUS which does not serve Beijing’s interests, said Henrick Tsjeng, an international studies scholar at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
“This means, from Beijing’s perspective, that a part of Southeast Asia could potentially still be used by the U.S. to counter China’s regional influence,” Tsjeng told BenarNews.
On the other hand, a divided ASEAN “could help China by ensuring that ASEAN will never be able to form a cohesive bloc that acts against Beijing’s interests in the region,” he added.
Beijing uses ‘financial inducements’
Over their 30 years of bilateral ties, ASEAN and China have had “a highly asymmetric relationship” and this mainly reflects in issues to do with the disputed South China Sea, said Hunter Marston, an international relations scholar at the Australian National University.
China claims nearly the entire sea, including waters within the exclusive economic zones of four ASEAN members: Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
“Beijing has found it useful to engage ASEAN in order to advance its regional ambitions, particularly by splitting states that disagree over geostrategic disputes like the South China Sea,” Marston told BenarNews.
“Beijing uses both financial inducements and punitive measures to dictate preferred norms of behavior by smaller states. For instance, China has cut off Philippine banana imports amidst maritime disputes … and frozen financial lending to Vietnam due to its oil and gas exploration in disputed waters.”
China’s boats have repeatedly violated the law by intruding into the waters of Southeast Asian claimant-states, analysts have said.
Just on Thursday, Chinese coast guard ships reportedly used water cannons to block a Philippine resupply mission to its military outpost on a reef in the South China Sea, Filipino officials alleged. Manila called the action “illegal.”
China’s ‘words and actions often don’t align’
In the face of such provocation by Beijing, “ASEAN states have far less leverage to speak out or push back against Chinese pressure,” Marston said, referring to Southeast Asian nations’ economies being dependent on China.
The Asian superpower has vigorously promoted infrastructure investment into Southeast Asia through the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, its $1 trillion-plus program to build a network of railways, ports and bridges across 70 countries.
“Chinese investment in Southeast Asia remained steady between 10 to 30 percent of total BRI [Belt, Road Initiative] investment from 2014 to 2019,” Tsjeng of Nanyang Technological University.
“With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, this percentage jumped to 36 percent in 2020 – even though total global BRI investment dropped sharply.”
In addition, ASEAN last year became China’s biggest trade partner, replacing the European Union – bilateral trade reached U.S. $732 billion.
Marston, from the Australian National University, said ASEAN states would benefit from China’s trade and investment even without bilateral diplomacy. But that engagement “has failed to ameliorate China’s coercive behavior,” he said.
That is why China’s wish, according to reports, to speed up negotiations on the Code of Conduct to coincide with the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-Beijing dialogue may not be fulfilled, said Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, a U.S. think-tank.
“China and ASEAN maritime counterclaimants remain too far apart in negotiations for this to realistically stand a chance of happening this year. Or any year for the foreseeable future,” Grossman said on Twitter.
China will say that it wants peace, stability and security in the region, said the University of Indonesia’s Rakhmat.
“[A]lthough when it comes to the South China Sea, [it’s] words and actions often don’t align,” he said.
Junta leader to show up?
Meanwhile, it remains unclear whether the junta leader of Myanmar, which is this year’s China-ASEAN dialogue coordinator, will be represented at the leader-level summit on Monday.
In an unprecedented move, the ASEAN Summit last month barred Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who led the Feb. 1 coup in Myanmar, saying he had reneged on promises made to the bloc on taking steps to restore peace and democracy.
Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines spearheaded the effort to disinvite the Burmese junta chief.
On Thursday, though, Reuters news agency reported that a Chinese envoy was lobbying ASEAN member-states to allow Min Aung Hlaing to attend.
Four regional diplomatic and political sources whom Reuters did not name said Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore did not want the Burmese junta chief at the Monday meeting.
BenarNews could not independently confirm the lobbying effort, although the Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said Indonesia was in favor of banning Min Aung Hlaing from the Monday meeting.
“I have no knowledge of such a proposal [to allow Min Aung Hlaing to attend],” he told BenarNews.
“Indonesia remains consistent. Indonesia’s position hasn’t changed.”
Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur, Tria Dianti and Ronna Nirmala in Jakarta, and Pimuk Rakkanam in Bangkok contributed to this report.