By Shailaja Neelakantan
ASEAN said Thursday that it agreed to upgrade ties with Beijing, a day after the bloc announced a similar agreement with Australia, in what appears to be a balancing act with Indo-Pacific powers amid tensions in the South China Sea.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations boosted its ties with Beijing two days after China offered to hold a bilateral summit this year to mark three decades of its dialogue with the bloc – with President Xi Jinping in attendance, as indicated by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
“We agreed to establish a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership [CSP] between ASEAN and China that is meaningful, substantive and mutually beneficial,” Brunei, the ASEAN chair for 2021, said in a statement.
ASEAN gave no details on what such a partnership would entail.
On the face of it, the move by the 10-member Southeast Asian bloc conveys that it will maintain the same official status in relations with both China and Australia – a firm ally of Beijing’s geopolitical rival, the United States. On Wednesday, ASEAN announced that it was upgrading its 47-year-old ties with Canberra to a CSP.
With Washington expanding its role in the Indo-Pacific, other nations could easily serve as stand-ins for the U.S. For instance, the Washington.-led Quad grouping draws in Japan and India, and the AUKUS defense pact brings together the United States and two other maritime democracies, Australia and the United Kingdom.
Numerous visits by Chinese officials to ASEAN countries and Beijing’s reciprocal invitations to them were part of an ongoing attempt to counter the Quads and the AUKUSes, the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singapore think-tank, noted in an article it published last month.
“The changing global geopolitical landscape with a stridently growing counter-China narrative and regional architecture led by an assertive Biden Administration, is also a factor in driving China to strengthen its remaining bright spot in diplomatic relations,” the article said.
An offer made by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang this week for China to hold a summit with ASEAN to mark three decades of bilateral dialogue could be seen as another attempt to sweeten bilateral ties.
But China’s overtures shouldn’t be overstated, analysts note. It would have been tough for ASEAN to sustain “a muted polite response” to Beijing’s desire for upgraded ties because most Southeast Asian economies depend on the regional superpower, they add.
As Southeast Asian studies scholar Jonathan Stromseth noted in a recent paper about the ASEAN region, China is “achieving its strategic goals in the region through economic statecraft.”
“[T]he security-centric paradigm that has long guided American thinking is an insufficient lens through which to view and understand the region,” wrote Stromseth, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“[T]he United States must also improve its economic game in a region where China has come to dominate trade and tourism and is matching if not exceeding Japan in infrastructure investment.”
South China Sea
Still, security concerns are not going to go away, and the AUKUS pact, by which the U.K. and U.S. will help Australia get nuclear-powered submarines, is a clear sign.
“Southeast Asian countries can be expected to push back against Beijing (and be more open to U.S. policy positions) when they feel threatened by China, especially where territorial integrity is concerned,” Stromseth of Brookings wrote.
How then will issues around the disputed South China Sea be discussed under an upgraded ASEAN-China relationship?
China claims nearly the entire sea, including waters within the exclusive economic zones of four ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
ASEAN’s chair did mention issues around the South China Sea in its statement after the summit with China.
“Some [ASEAN] leaders raised issues related to several activities and serious incidents in the area, including damage to the marine environment, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region,” the ASEAN chair’s statement said, referring to land-reclamation activities.
The statement did not say which nation or nations were responsible for these activities, although satellite images and regional observers point to China.
For its part, China has reiterated that peace in the South China Sea is in the common interest of China and ASEAN member states.
China is “willing to step up dialogue and consultation” on the South China Sea to “steer clear of external disruptions, advance practical maritime cooperation, and maintain peace, stability and long-term security in the SCS,” Beijing’s five-point proposal for China-ASEAN relations says.
But Beijing’s pronouncements hardly align with its actions.
In addition to militarizing the South China Sea, Beijing has stepped up its incursions into other claimant nations’ exclusive economic zones, used its maritime militia to harass fishermen in waters claimed by other countries and parked its survey ships in oil-rich zones in others’ waters.
In recent months, the Philippines and Malaysia have lodged diplomatic protests or summoned the Chinese envoy in their country over repeated intrusions into their waters.
A comprehensive strategic partnership, instead of a mere strategic partnership, is not going to make these problems go away, noted Farah Nadine Seth and Sharon Seah, authors of the article in the ISEAS publication.
“China’s track record of coercive fait accompli building of artificial islands and military outposts to stake its territorial claim as well as its blatant disregard of the 2016 Tribunal ruling not in its favor, makes it unlikely that Beijing can be persuaded to depart from its thus far China-first doctrine even within an AC-CSP,” they said, referring to an ASEAN-China comprehensive strategic partnership.
Beijing’s expansive claims to the South China Sea were invalidated through a 2016 ruling by the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague. China has never accepted this ruling.
In such a scenario, ASEAN’s upgraded ties with China “could put claimant states under greater pressure to resolve SCS disputes bilaterally, an avenue that China has long preferred,” the ISEAS article said.
“Similarly, non-SCS claimant states may be reluctant to include the matter of SCS concessions, those not being of concern to them in an institutional agreement.”
For these reasons, ASEAN should focus on enhanced ties expanding cooperation mainly in “mutual ‘bright spots’ in the socio-cultural realm,” Seth and Seah write.
And more than anything else, they said, “ASEAN must be mindful of the method and pace” with which the fine print of this enhanced relationship is negotiated.
BenarNews staff in the Philippines contributed to this report.