Divide and Rule: China Woos Southeast Asia

At the 17th China-ASEAN leaders’ meeting in Naypyitaw, Myanmar in November 2014, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called for the formulation of a Plan of Action to Implement the Joint Declaration on the ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity (2016-2020)[1] to ensure good neighbourly relations. A Global Times commentary has pointed out that while the Chairman’s Statement of the 24th ASEAN Summit on the South China Sea disputes ‘expressed serious concerns over the ongoing developments in the South China Sea’, the statement at the 25th Summit that concluded in Naypyitaw on 13 November, only mentioned that it was ‘concerned over the situation in the South China Sea’.[2] Clearly, the Chinese are working on the ASEAN members to moderate their views on the seriousness of the impact of the South China Sea disputes, and by extension, China’s actions, on regional stability.

Keeping the United States out 

Targetting China at the 21st ASEAN Regional Forum Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Myanmar in August 2014, US Secretary of State John Kerry had called for a ‘freeze’ on provocative actions in the South China Sea. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi however countered by saying that while the idea sounded good it was counterproductive in reality, exaggerated maritime tensions in the region and would only complicate efforts by the parties themselves to reduce tensions, including the formulation of a Code of Conduct.[3] Speaking at the East Asia Summit at Naypyitaw, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, too reiterated that it was only a dual-track approach involving negotiations between the countries directly concerned that would result in a resolution of the South China Sea disputes.[4] Beijing clearly is becoming impatient continued American activism in what it considers is its sphere of influence. As one Chinese commentator noted, ‘The US proposal for a “freeze” on provocative acts in the South China Sea is essentially aimed at regulating China and demonstrating to regional countries that the US is still capable of balancing and regulating China. This is what is most unacceptable to Beijing’.[5]

To buttress this point further, Wang also suggested that American worries over freedom of navigation were unwarranted since China had fully guaranteed this freedom. The US efforts in effect would only worsen matters by encouraging the Philippines and Vietnam to become more aggressive vis-à-vis China. Indeed, pointed out the Chinese Foreign Minister, the South China Sea had become more turbulent since the US had declared its pivot to Asia strategy.[6]

Beijing has suggested that ‘The South China issues do not harm overall relations between China and ASEAN,’ and so the parties ‘can free their minds, expand close cooperation in the areas of defense and security, counter non-traditional threats… and speed up the negotiations for the “Code of Conduct in the South China Sea”’.[7] China has stated that ‘No matter how the international situation may evolve, China will continue to take ASEAN as a priority in its neighborhood diplomacy and that it was committed to the path of peaceful development and pursues a policy of good-neighborliness and friendship with its neighbors’.[8]

Politburo Standing Committee member and Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, while addressing the 11th China-ASEAN Expo, in Nanning in southeastern China said his country wanted to be the first among ASEAN’s dialogue partners ‘to conclude a treaty on good-neighborliness, friendship and cooperation’ with ASEAN it as a legal and institutional guarantee for their long-term friendship and called for informal meetings for leaders of China and ASEAN to be held in China on an irregular basis in conjunction with the China-ASEAN Expo and the Boao Forum for Asia.[9] Earlier, at the 10th China-ASEAN Expo, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang calling the previous 10 years ‘a golden decade of cooperation’, said the two sides were ‘capable of turning the next 10 years into a diamond decade’[10] of benefits for their peoples – a theme he has repeated at other bilateral and multilateral forums.[11] Connecting with political issues at some of these predominantly economic forums, China is reminding the region of the importance and continuing potential of economic ties[12] – even as political ties come under pressure due to the territorial disputes and the United States’ role in the region.

Diplomatic Overdrive

China has backed up its diplomatic overtures to the region with several soft power initiatives[13] and through military diplomacy.[14] China’s push for an ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership[15] and its willingness to sign the Protocol to the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone at an early date are all designed to keep ASEAN divided. China has tried to solidify support of those ASEAN countries that do not have a stake in the South China Sea territorial disputes, such as Thailand,[16] Laos,[17] or Cambodia,[18] while trying to gradually win over the more amenable or pragmatic of the disputants such as Malaysia[19] and perhaps, even Vietnam[20] – with the latter of whom difficulties in bilateral relations were seen as only ‘temporary’[21] – while isolating or putting pressure on those who have decided to depend heavily on the United States such as the Philippines.[22]

China has used diplomacy to counter moves by the Philippines, most prominently the latter’s ‘three-step’ plan for resolving the South China Sea dispute with Foreign Minister Wang arguing, that the Philippines ‘need[ed] to cancel international arbitrations first’.[23] Beijing has also pointed out that Manila did not win widespread support from other ASEAN member countries and blamed it for the fact that for the first time ever, ASEAN could not publish a Joint Communiqué at the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Foreign Ministers Meeting.[24] With Indonesia meanwhile, while regular bilateral interactions have continued,[25] it has also been warned to maintain its neutrality after Joko Widodo newly-elected president of the country, in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun in Japan, declared that his country ‘stands ready to play an intermediary role’ in the South China Sea issue.[26]

At the same time, Beijing is looking for support for its new idea of the Maritime Silk Road that is designed to draw in the ASEAN into a still tighter economic and strategic embrace with China.[27] Given that the idea is weighted with much significance at home having been espoused by President Xi Jinping himself, it is a sign of China’s remarkable confidence that it should promote such ideas even as the direction and outcome of the South China Sea disputes is far from certain. And Beijing is moving fast, having already designated 2015 as the China-ASEAN maritime cooperation year in order to promote joint development at sea through dialogue and negotiation among the littoral states of the South China Sea.[28]

boatman in Batam, Indonesia
boatman in Batam, Indonesia

India’s Options

A November 2014 commentary in the Global Times observed, ‘By nature, conflicts in the South China Sea lead to a contention over leadership in this region between China and the US’.[29] Clearly then, it is leadership of the region that Beijing seeks. For India, the breadth and scale of China’s activities in Southeast Asia suggest that to ‘act East’ is an ever greater imperative if it is to increase presence and win a permanent place, if not leadership, in region. It is not just Washington but New Delhi, too, that must ask questions of Wang Yi’s simultaneous declaration – that China’s position of safeguarding its sovereignty and maritime rights and interests is ‘unshakable’ and that while it will continue to exercise restraint it will also respond to provocations ‘unequivocally and resolutely’.[30]

An additional opportunity is available through Jakarta where President Widodo has expressed his own ambitions to develop Indonesia as a ‘global maritime fulcrum’.[31] Given that Xi Jinping first announced his MSR initiative during his 2013 visit to Indonesia,[32] he clearly was not expecting the Indonesians to come up with their own idea along similar lines and is unlikely to want to cede either ground or leadership. Indian policymakers must seek convergence between their Project Mausam initiative and the Indonesian idea and to build this up as an opportunity for greater engagement with not just the world’s third-largest democracy but also with the rest of Southeast Asia. Indonesia might be a longer-term, more multi-faceted, and therefore, sustainable partner for New Delhi in the region than Vietnam can be.



[1] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-11/14/c_133788239.htm

[2] http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/892219.shtml

[3] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-08/11/c_133547782.htm. See also, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-08/10/c_133544829.htm.

[4] http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/891778.shtml

[5] http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/876084.shtml.

[6] http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/876052.shtml, http://en.people.cn/n/2014/0813/c90000-8768907.html, http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2014-08/12/content_18292970.htm. See also http://en.people.cn/n/2014/0815/c90000-8770188.html

[7] http://en.people.cn/n/2014/0820/c98649-8771809.html, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/892219.shtml

[8] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-08/10/c_133544829.htm

[9] http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/881705.shtml

[10] http://www.bjreview.com.cn/quotes/txt/2013-10/19/content_571342.htm

[11] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-11/14/c_133788239.htm

[12] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-08/08/c_133542774.htm, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-09/15/c_133644880.htm. See also, http://www.scmp.com/business/economy/article/1610229/dealing-dragon-asean-and-china-trade-thrives-amid-disputes, http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1639267/china-offers-more-incentives-asean-investors-planned-trade-pact, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-11/14/c_133788265.htm

[13] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-08/08/c_133542134.htm, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2014-09/19/content_18630327.htm, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-11/19/c_133800875.htm

[14] http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/882393.shtml, http://eng.chinamil.com.cn/news-channels/china-military-news/2014-09/12/content_6134955.htm, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/880991.shtml, http://eng.chinamil.com.cn/news-channels/china-military-news/2014-09/11/content_6133064.htm, http://eng.mod.gov.cn/DefenseNews/2014-08/29/content_4533540.htm, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-11/18/c_133798146.htm, http://eng.chinamil.com.cn/news-channels/china-military-news/2014-11/18/content_6229344.htm, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-09/21/c_127012896.htm, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-09/22/c_133662687.htm, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2014-09/22/content_18636738.htm, http://eng.chinamil.com.cn/news-channels/china-military-news/2014-10/27/content_6198121.htm

[15] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-11/14/c_133788239.htm

[16] http://www.china.org.cn/world/Off_the_Wire/2014-08/09/content_33192425.htm, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-11/17/c_133795965.htm. See also, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/892047.shtml

[17] http://www.china.org.cn/world/Off_the_Wire/2014-08/09/content_33188247.htm;

[18] http://www.scmp.com/news/asia/article/1569456/asean-ministers-want-legally-binding-code-conduct-south-china-sea, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-09/16/c_133647345.htm, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-09/16/c_133647747.htm

[19] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-08/09/c_133543125.htm, http://big5.news.cn/gate/big5/news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-08/21/c_133573077.htm

[20] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-08/28/c_133603760.htm, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-08/27/c_133590685.htm, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/882330.shtml

[21] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-08/09/c_133543121.htm

[22] In September 2014, China also urged the Philippines to protect its institutions and staff there after a foiled plot to bomb the Chinese Embassy in Manila, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-09/02/c_133615458.htm

[23] http://en.people.cn/n/2014/0813/c98649-8768897.html

[24] http://en.people.cn/n/2014/0813/c98649-8768897.html

[25] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-08/22/c_133576987.htm, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2014-09/22/content_18636738.htm, http://europe.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2014-10/27/content_18806504.htm

[26] http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/878313.shtml. Xi did however, congratulate Widodo on taking over and interactions have continued, http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2014-10/24/content_18799368.htmhttp://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-11/03/c_133763420.htm

[27] http://en.people.cn/n/2014/0820/c98649-8771809.html, http://en.people.cn/n/2014/0820/c98649-8771809.html

[28] http://europe.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2014-08/10/content_18280239.htm

[29] http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/889599.shtml

[30] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-08/10/c_133544847.htm, http://english.cntv.cn/2014/08/09/ARTI1407541338230231.shtml

[31] http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2014/11/13/jokowi-launches-maritime-doctrine-world.html, http://csis.org/publication/jokowi-spells-out-vision-indonesias-global-maritime-nexus

[32] http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2013xiapec/2013-10/04/content_17008913.htm


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