Ahead of key Apec and Asean meetings, China’s attempts to soften its image have only limited success

Yang Razali Kassim says under Xi Jinping, the country comes across as a welcome partner in prosperity at times. Yet, for many, it remains a giant to fear

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 November, 2015, 5:33pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 November, 2015, 3:39pm

The summit between Xi Jinping (習近平) and Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore was a well-kept secret. When the historic meeting finally took place on November 7, the effect was cataclysmic. But while it was an unprecedented event between two political rivals, China and Taiwan, there was a broader message: as China’s new leader, Xi has a vision of the emerging Asian giant taking its place in the modern world, even influencing the shape of the global order, beginning with its own backyard – the Asia-Pacific, including Southeast Asia.

Beijing is now softening its image to defuse tension and resistance, even as it controversially asserts itself on key strategic issues

In his attempt to thaw Beijing’s relations with Taipei, Xi signalled that he is prepared to take untrodden paths, through mutual accommodation, at a time when Beijing is realising that its rapid rise has generated widespread unease in the region. Beijing is now softening its image to defuse tension and resistance, even as it controversially asserts itself on key strategic issues, the latest of which is its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

On the broader canvas, what Southeast Asia is witnessing is a new China, one that is more assertive and employing a three-pronged strategy of diplomacy, growing economic might and military muscle. All the major global platforms are being exploited, from the United Nations to regional forums – even initiating new ones, such as the Xiangshan Forum to rival the Singapore-based Shangri-La Dialogue. The priority, for now, is clearly Beijing’s Asia-Pacific neighbourhood, which will be the epicentre of the 21st-century world.

It is against this backdrop that we should view China’s latest diplomatic foray into Southeast Asia, beginning with his recent visit to Vietnam and then to Singapore, ahead of this week’s crucial regional summits – the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Manila and the East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur – where China will be the player to watch.

READ MORE: Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visits to Southeast Asia have set the right tone for fruitful ties with Asean

China’s latest strategic push appears to have two related objectives. The first is to counter what Beijing sees as a developing containment strategy by the United States, which most in the region see as provoked by Beijing’s controversial territorial claims in the South China Sea. Most alarming is Beijing’s building of artificial islands on reefs in disputed waters. The second, broader objective is to expand China’s political, diplomatic and economic space through its “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which forms part of the country’s attempt to rebalance a US-dominated world order.

Two significant features of “One Belt, One Road” are notable – first, the strategic role of Southeast Asia and the South China Sea; second, the conspicuous lack of connectivity with the Americas.

In Xi’s major diplomatic engagement at the Apec summit this week, the battle will be to reorder the global international trading and economic system. A key issue is the tussle between the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and its rival, the China-dominated Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

The thing to watch is whether Xi will reposition RCEP as a complement, rather than a competitor, to the TPP, so that Apec’s ultimate goal of an Asia-Pacific free trade area can be realised. It is a sign of the times that Apec’s long-standing objective of creating the Asia-Pacific’s largest free trade area has been co-opted by China – once a free-trade laggard - as its own vision when Beijing hosted the Apec summit last year.

Soon after the Apec leaders’ meeting on Wednesday and Thursday, the power game will shift to Kuala Lumpur for the crucial Asean-China summit, and then the high-profile East Asia Summit where a key agenda item will unavoidably be the South China Sea.

READ MORE: Beijing’s reef building in South China Sea will continue

This is where the region’s latest flashpoint is threatening to boil over. The South China Sea is the new cockpit where the US, an established power, is being challenged by emerging power China. Caught in the middle are the smaller regional players who are uncomfortable about this situation or fear being trampled underfoot.

The latest sign of this tinderbox involves the US freedom of navigation and overflight operations in and above regional waters that China claims but the US and the international community do not recognise. More pessimistic analysts, such as Professor Tosh Minohara of Kobe University, are not ruling out an accidental Sino-US clash – even leading to a “world war three”. Sharing the views of other scholars, he sees a geostrategic shift towards a new regional order in East Asia. While the final shape is still uncertain, he does not rule out the possibility of one scenario – a Pax Sinica.

China’s attempt to rebalance the regional and, ultimately, the global order is gathering pace on multiple fronts: via peaceful diplomacy through cooperation platforms such as BRICS and “One Belt, One Road”; and via economic diplomacy through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and investment forays abroad, including in the UK. Yet the region is also grappling with a conflicting image of China – one that is flexing its muscle over disputed space through air defence zones in East Asia, and its controversial island-building strategy in the South China Sea.

Under Xi, it is a two-sided China that the world is seeing. It is a welcome partner in peace and prosperity, but it is also a potential menacing giant

Under Xi, it is a two-sided China that the world is seeing. It is a welcome partner in peace and prosperity, but it is also a potential menacing giant. While China’s moves such as “One Belt, One Road” and the infrastructure investment bank have won it new support, it has succeeded in equal measure in antagonising and generating distrust in the region. This unsettling and divisive impact is felt especially on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. For the second time since 2012, an Asean ministerial meeting – this time of defence ministers in Kuala Lumpur this month – ended without issuing a joint declaration due to differences over the South China Sea issue.

Indonesia, a non-claimant state, is also now feeling threatened and warning China of possible international arbitration, as the Philippines has done. Malaysia, once sensitive to China’s feelings, is now openly critical of Beijing’s territorial claims. There is also some uncertainty over the ultimate motive of China’s push for “One Belt, One Road” in Southeast Asia – is it really to cooperate for mutual gain, or is it to undermine established relationships in the region?

READ MORE: China must tread lightly with its ‘one belt, one road’ initiative

Over these next two weeks, Asean states will be confronted with the excruciating challenge of how to remain united in the driver’s seat so that the emerging regional order will not disadvantage it. The grouping’s leaders will have to be highly skilful as they grapple with this issue, first in the Asean-China summit, and then in the East Asia Summit where the US will also be involved. The upcoming regional talks will be extremely tricky but will carry far-reaching implications.

Yang Razali Kassim is a senior fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore