Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang mount diplomatic offensive in Southeast Asia

Top leaders use absence of Obama at regional meetings to build influence in pragmatic ways with wary Southeast Asian neighbours

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 October, 2013, 4:39am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 October, 2013, 2:09pm

The diplomatic manoeuvrings by the top two Chinese leaders over the past two weeks in Southeast Asian nations saw Beijing reshaping its priorities towards its mostly wary neighbours.

In the absence of US President Barack Obama, who chose to stay at home to deal with the government's shutdown crisis, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang came under particularly close scrutiny in their separate trips to five Southeast Asian nations.

One of Beijing's achievements was the agreement reached after talks between Li and his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Tan Dung, on Sunday to form a working group to jointly explore the disputed waters in the South China Sea.

There were no concrete details about how such a project would proceed, but observers said securing the agreement with Vietnam - one of the two strongest claimants to the disputed areas, along with the Philippines - indicated that Beijing's recent tactics had paid off.

"This is a positive result, and the long-term impact of it will need to be observed," said Yu Xiangdong , director of the Institute of Vietnam Studies at Zhengzhou University.

Beijing had previously called for claimant countries to set aside their disputes by looking towards joint exploration of the waters, but Beijing's increased surveillance of the area has triggered fears about the China's growing assertiveness and military might.

The Sino-Vietnamese agreement indicated that China might have softened its approach towards other claimants.

Poor relations with China might push Southeast Asian nations into joining the US-dominated Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that does not include Beijing, and also make them less enthusiastic towards the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that Beijing is supporting.

"China would then be isolated," Zhuang Guotu , director of Southeast Asian Studies at Xiamen , University.

Beijing also elevated its ties with Indonesia and Malaysia to "comprehensive strategic partnerships" during state visits to the two nations by Xi during the first week of October.

During his stops in Brunei and Thailand, Li witnessed the signing of extensive deals boosting energy and infrastructure developments.

Xi used his speeches at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Bali to allay fears concerning China's economic downturn, while Li called on Southeast Asian nations at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summits in Brunei to focus less on the South China Sea disputes and more on economic co-operation.

Obama's representative, Secretary of State John Kerry, concentrated on giving reassurances of the US commitment to Asia despite the government's domestic woes.

Obama's absence also helped to give Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe more prominence.

Abe said during the Asean summits that the South China Sea issue related directly to regional stability, and for the first time the joint statement released following an Asean-Japan summit mentioned the importance of freedom of navigation in the disputed waters.

The Abe administration has offered coast guard vessels to the Philippines and conducted what it described as "counter-terrorism" exercises with Indonesia.

"Japan and China are major rivals in search of influence in the region," said Heng Sarith, a research fellow at the Cambodia Institute for Co-operation and Peace.

"Japan cannot wait and see what China is doing, and it is also boosting bilateral relations in a very productive manner. Asean will try to be balanced in engaging with all major powers."

Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean diplomat and dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, said China had the advantages of having greater foreign currency reserves and being the biggest trading partner of most Asean countries. The Asia infrastructure development bank suggested by Xi during his trip could benefit Asean, he said.

But Zhang Mingliang , a specialist in Southeast Asian affairs at Jinan University, said the impact of the high-profile visits should not be overestimated, particularly as the 10-member Asean did not give a strong response to Li's call for the signing of a friendship treaty with Beijing.