Originally Published 2013-12-06 10:42:53 Published on Dec 06, 2013
China's renewed engagement with the Southeast Asian neighbours seems to be a policy of the new leadership. However, it must follow up on these successful visits by its efforts and actions. For now, maintaining good relations with ASEAN members seems to be Beijing's new strategy to ease tensions in the SCS.
A new phase in China-ASEAN relations?
" The relations between China and ASEAN have entered a stage of difficulty following tension over the South China Sea (SCS) conflict. Beijing has territorial disputes with four ASEAN members. This is also impacting on the ties amongst the ASEAN community. For the first time in its 45-year history, ASEAN failed to issue a joint communiqué in 2012, owing to divisions over the SCS.

The growing lack of trust and aggressive assertions over their respective claims has affected China's relations with ASEAN members. China's relationship with Vietnam and the Philippines quickly deteriorated owing to the dispute. These nations found themselves turning to non-claimant actors for support against China. Additionally, Beijing was immensely irked by the US 'rebalance' to Asia which is being welcomed by many of the ASEAN nations. China perceives American presence in the region as a 'containment' policy against it. While Washington and Manila renewed their Mutual Defence Treaty - seeking American support in a possible conflict with Beijing, Hanoi invited India to continue investing in Vietnam and stay put in the disputed oil blocks in the SCS. These developments antagonised Beijing further as it continues to oppose the involvement of a non-claimant actor in the regional dispute.

Against this backdrop, Beijing seems to be trying to mend ties with its disgruntled ASEAN neighbours in the recent months. China's top two leaders set out on a tour to ease the tension amongst the claimants. President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang visited five nations and attended the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit and the East Asia Summit (EAS) respectively - two top level forums to discuss economic and security issues of the region. While President Obama cancelled his Asia tour, the two leaders spoke on maritime and economic cooperation emphasising on a regional integration. Beijing took this opportunity to improve ties with the neighbours and put forth its views and concerns about security in the region. The absence of the American President set the stage for Chinese dominance at the APEC and the EAS. Premier Li Keqiang followed up the tour with the China-ASEAN Summit 2013 revealing Beijing's new strategy for China-ASEAN relations. Marking the 10 year anniversary of the China-ASEAN partnership, the Premier put forward the 2+7 cooperation framework for both sides. The visit to a great extent helped overcome the ongoing difficult stage between China and its ASEAN neighbours.

Mending ties with the neighbours

President Xi Jinping reached Jakarta on November 2, beginning a tour to further Beijing's relationship with some of the ASEAN members. Xi delivered a speech at the Indonesian House of Representatives, becoming the first foreign head of a state to do so. During the visit, Beijing and Jakarta elevated their bilateral relationship to a 'comprehensive strategic partnership'. China expressed that both sides should exchange views on Asia-Pacific economic situation and "join hands pushing forward China-ASEAN cooperation". Indonesian Vice President Boediono noted that "Xi Jinping's current visit will undoubtedly push forward bilateral cooperation in all fields to better promote the development of the two countries".

Continuing the tour, Xi then travelled to Malaysia on October 3, 2013. The Chinese leader met with Malaysian leaders to discuss and further the China-Malaysia bilateral relationship. Xi met with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and upgraded Beijing's relationship with Malaysia to a 'comprehensive strategic partnership'. Xi raised a few proposals on bilateral cooperation stressing on regional economic integration. The Malaysian side too committed in developing their relationship further. The Malaysian Prime Minister stated that "Malaysia is ready to strengthen exchanges and cooperation with China in the fields of military-to-military exchanges, sci-tech, law enforcement, education, tourism, people-to-people and cultural exchanges. The Malaysian side fully supports China's proposal to prepare for the establishment of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and is ready to consider participating".

Beijing has maintained the need for a regional integration. It is necessary for China to sustain good relations with the other Asian nations to keep the issues at a regional level, so as to leave no scope for a non regional power to interfere. It is interesting to note that the new leadership is more engaging with their neighbours and with the global community at large. Since assuming Presidency in China on March 14, 2013, Xi has travelled to countries in Africa, Latin America, Central Asia and to America.

China is sceptical of the US pivot and has opposed Washington's call for peace and security on the issue of the SCS. It was necessary for Beijing to improve its deteriorating ties with the ASEAN nations in order to push for a successful regional integration. Visiting these countries during a difficult time in their bilateral relationship helped reduce the tension and animosity to a great extent.

Premier Li Keqiang's speech at the eighth East Asia Summit (2013) echoed Xi Jinping's call for a regional integration. The premier also encouraged the leaders of the region to enhance mutual trust amongst themselves to maintain regional peace and stability. Speaking on the issue of the SCS, Li reiterated Beijing's stance on guaranteed freedom of navigation through SCS and urged the nations to resolve the dispute through bilateral negotiations and discussions. Opposing the Philippines move to approach the UN arbitration court, Li noted that "Unilateral referral of the bilateral disputes to international arbitration runs counter to the DOC, agreed by China and ASEAN countries". Philippines have been very vocal about its dispute with China and have sought American support on the issue. China refused to cooperate with Manila on the UN arbitration process. Beijing maintains that disputes should be resolved only at a bilateral level.

This was also Li's state visit to Brunei. During the course of the visit, China and Brunei decided to strengthen Maritime Cooperation to promote joint development. Li then continued the tour by visiting Thailand on October 11 and Vietnam on October 13. Calling to further strengthen Sino-Thai relations, Li said that the two countries "have been good brothers since ancient times". He emphasised on taking the Sino-Thai comprehensive strategic partnership to a new level by enjoying the "opportunities generated by each other's development". Addressing the National Assembly of Thailand, Li stressed on further close relations between the nations by calling for closer bilateral cooperation in all aspects. He said that "Sino-Thai relations have gone beyond the scope of bilateral relations" and the two nations should open a new page for China-Thailand friendship. Thai leaders reciprocated Beijing's sentiments with a standing ovation at the end of the speech.

Li's visit to Vietnam is an important development in China-ASEAN relations. Ties between Beijing and Hanoi soured due the disputes in the SCS. Hanoi and Manila have been explicitly expressing their disappointment with Beijing over the issue. The visit at the level of the Premier with a message for cooperation and friendship greatly reduced the tensions between the two nations. Both nations signed a series of cooperation documents and agreements. Underlining the importance of the visit, Li stated that "During my current visit, I reached new consensus with Viennese leaders on deepening China-Vietnam relations and the two countries also signed a series of cooperation documents and agreements. Hope both sides will, bearing the big picture, work together to effectively implement the consensus. Especially pushing forward maritime, onshore and financial cooperation... show to the two peoples, neighbouring countries and the world that China and Vietnam absolutely have the ability and wisdom to overcome difficulties....China is ready to work with Vietnam to forge ahead in the overall direction of bilateral relations in order to promote greater development of China-Vietnam comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership".

China's maritime dispute in SCS and the East China Sea (ECS) has affected SE Asia's regional dynamics. As Washington increases its presence in the region while strengthening its ties with Japan and the Philippines, it is important for China to maintain good relations with its ASEAN neighbours. Responding to the 'contain China' policy, Beijing set out to boost its relation with the ASEAN members.

China's relationship with the Philippines and Japan continues to turn sour over the maritime disputes. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made an effort to maintain and further Japan's bilateral relations with the ASEAN nations. Since taking office in December 2012, Abe has visited all 10 ASEAN nations. As Japan looks to win support amongst the SE Asian countries, Beijing must be careful in its bilateral relationship with ASEAN. Recently, as Typhoon Haiyan ravaged Philippines, international aid for the country poured in by and large. However, China is being criticised for the 'stingy' aid offered to its neighbour on the aftermath of the typhoon. Beijing's actions raised concerns regarding China as a friendly neighbour at a time of distress, with the international media calling China's aid as "measly" and "insulting".

Beijing has made a start in extending a message of friendship and cooperation to some of the ASEAN members. China's renewed engagement with the Southeast Asian neighbours seems to be a policy of the new leadership. However, it must follow up on these successful visits by its efforts and actions in cooperating on the troubled areas. For now, maintaining good relations with the member nations of ASEAN seems to be Beijing's new strategy to ease tensions in the SCS.

(The writer is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Courtesy : ORF South China Sea Monitor

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