The ASEAN-Chinese foreign ministers’ meeting in Chongqing, China from June 6-8 was the first “face-to-face” meeting between foreign ministers from the two sides since. the onset of the Covid-19 crisis. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand

The recent meeting of ASEAN and Chinese foreign ministers earlier this month in Chongqing was crucial for its timing and circumstances. Co-chaired by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin, it was the first “face-to-face” meeting between foreign ministers from both sides since the start of the Covid-19 period. at the beginning of last year.

Face-to-face meetings are essential to the inner workings of ASEAN as a diplomatic community, as the strengths of the 10-member Southeast Asian regional organization lie in informality and interaction. at social gatherings. In this case, the Chongqing meeting brought strategic and symbolic advantages to Beijing and assurances to ASEAN, allowing China to peddle its geostrategic interests and agenda while keeping its great Belt and Road strategy. on the right track.

Among the highlights, Wang noted the regional comprehensive economic partnership, the South China Sea code of conduct, an Asia-China comprehensive strategic partnership project and “Asian values” were the most salient. The Myanmar crisis, which was the most pressing concern between the two sides, was conspicuously absent from the Chinese statement. For Asean, the main problems were the Covid-19 and the recovery in the event of a pandemic, the South China Sea and Myanmar. The meeting ended on an optimistic and forward-looking note. China believed its agenda was intact and on-going, while ASEAN foreign ministers had the opportunity to voice their collective concerns.

Overall, analysts and commentators from regional think tanks feel that China is making steady progress in asserting its regional role and agenda. The United States may have more “stock” of its entrenched role and influence since World War II, but the “flow” of expansionary maneuvering from China as a rising superpower in Southeast Asia is inexorable and indispensable as a regional economic powerhouse.

One part is related to geography. China is a giant resident neighbor that cannot be denied. The United States, on the other hand, is not only a distant superpower with national divisions, but it has fallen behind in “soft power” and the struggle for “hearts and minds” in Southeast Asia. As has been widely noted, it took President Joe Biden’s administration five months to send a senior official, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, to Southeast Asia via Jakarta. , Phnom Penh and Bangkok.

The follow-up virtual conference between his boss, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, and his ASEAN counterparts did not materialize due to technical difficulties. Meanwhile, Mr Blinken visited the Middle East and President Biden visited Europe for the G7 meeting, which caused ASEAN leaders to question US priorities, leaving the China as the necessary alternative superpower to manage. All eyes will be on Washington’s role and level of representation at the ASEAN-centric summits later this year.

For China, the top three priorities that guided the Chongqing agenda were Myanmar, Covid-19 and the South China Sea. On Myanmar, China has its own issues with Myanmar’s armed forces, known as Tatmadaw. Beijing is counting on natural gas and CMEC (China-Myanmar Economic Corridor) projects with a geostrategic link from Yunnan through Myanmar to the Indian Ocean. Myanmar is an essential piece of China’s geostrategic puzzle. Senior Chinese officials have more than once expressed their dissatisfaction with the February 1 coup. Yet China (along with Russia) has protected Myanmar’s military regime in the United Nations Security Council, beating and diluting what would otherwise have been harsh and damning resolutions.

But on the ground, Beijing is concerned about rising anti-Chinese sentiment, including popular attacks and arson attacks on Chinese companies. In many ways, the Tatmadaw has snooked China, not quite blackmailed, but in a hurry to the extent that China needs Myanmar more than Myanmar’s Tatmadaw needs China. Prior to the coup, senior Chinese leaders met and treated cordially the now imprisoned opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. At the time, China had already understood where Myanmar fits in the Beijing BRI and the larger geostrategic mix.

The coup changed all that, forcing Beijing to rethink and reshape China-Myanmar relations. This is why the Chongqing meeting provided an opportunity for China to push ASEAN to do something after the group held a special summit on Myanmar on April 24, resulting in a “five-point consensus. “which came to nothing. After nearly two months, Asean is still divided and undecided as to its structure and format of envoy.

On Covid-19, China had an easier time. He capitalized on “mask diplomacy” prior to “vaccine diplomacy”. Most ASEAN countries except Myanmar and Vietnam have used Sinovac and Sinopharm from donations and sales. China has also acquired the merit of being the first entry and the first exit from the pandemic crisis, limiting new infections to a minimum for such a large population unlike the United States and Europe. Here, the United States is trying to catch up with a recent donation of 500 million doses to Covax, the international vaccine program. But the U.S. decision on vaccines is unfocused as opposed to China’s targeted vaccine diplomacy to bolster its BRI partners and global influence. There is still time for the vaccine race, but the United States must move faster and smarter if it is to reach parity with China’s post-pandemic position.

On the South China Sea, the meeting was more summary. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Wang urged to “reach the COC [Code of Conduct] at an early date, “repeating previous appeals. Likewise, the South China Sea issues are between China and the Asean claimant states, and should not be hampered by outside powers. With the fragmented position. From Asean over Myanmar and the South China Sea, the COC is likely to continue to idle as maritime tensions mount.

For Washington in the midst of this dynamic, there is a growing specter of the “Quad” between Australia, India, Japan and the United States replacing the “hub / rays” alliance system in relations between United States and China under Mr. Biden, unlike Barack Obama. administration when the centrality of Asean obtained a leading role. This is where Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden are fundamentally different despite obvious similarities and continuities coming from the same Democratic Party and sharing political experts. Mr. Obama has been more accommodating and cooperative with Beijing. By the time Mr. Biden arrived at the White House, the bipartisan consensus in US political circles had solidified, pointing to China as a rival and a geostrategic competitor. While Washington has a clear view of China, it remains unclear what to do about it.

Overall, the recent meeting of ASEAN and Chinese foreign ministers aims to reassure and ensure that bilateral relations move forward. The 30th anniversary of the dialogue was a timely occasion in view of the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party this year. The United States is in catch-up mode in Southeast Asia. Its program of values ​​on rights / freedoms and democracy must be better operationalized and resourced to be more effective. Other countries in the fray, like Japan and Australia, need to think long and hard about where to go and how to deal with Beijing’s regional weight when the US position under Mr. Biden is failing. not yet solid and that the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy is still inexperienced. , while India has its hands full at home.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

PROFESSOR AT CHULALONGKORN UNIVERSITY

Professor and Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, he obtained a doctorate from the London School of Economics with a thesis prize in 2002. Recognized for the excellence of his Opinions written by the Society of Publishers in Asia, his opinions and articles have been widely published by local and international media.



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