Why Asean-China relations will remain cordial, but not close
- As the global geopolitical focus shifts to Asia, Asean takes on greater salience for the major powers, particularly China
- While China and Asean have pledged in their recent meeting to take their partnership to ‘new heights’, given China’s actions in the region, Asean’s wariness is understandable
Bilateral interaction between Asean and China began in July 1991 when China was invited to the 24th Asean ministerial meeting in Malaysia. At the time, Asean comprised six nations.
Since its inception in August 1967, Asean has had a special relevance for the major powers. During the Cold War decades, the United States and the former Soviet Union had their own strategic objectives in relation to Southeast Asia and the nascent five-member Asean was nurtured by the US-led West as part of a containment strategy.
Clearly most Asean members are unhappy with Beijing’s belligerence in the South China Sea but are unable to arrive at a common position on this matter, much less lodge a clear protest.
That 19 years later, the code of conduct is still being negotiated is instructive. The June 8 statement notes that both parties “reaffirm our continued commitment to fully and effectively implement the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in its entirety, including strengthening practical maritime cooperation to build mutual trust and confidence”.
There is an ironic twist in the Chongqing statement. Beijing has agreed to “uphold the freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability, and pursue the peaceful resolution of disputes, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea]”.
However, from an Asean perspective, Beijing has violated all these elements.
Asean is pivotal in the larger construct of the Indo-Pacific and all the major powers – the US, China, Japan and India – have robust ties with the collective. However, this region is China’s backyard and Beijing would like to ensure that the region acknowledges Chinese primacy.
The texture of the US-Russia-China triangle will temper the options Asean can explore to retain its own autonomy and political-diplomatic locus in the post-pandemic decade. For now, a subdued Asean-China cordiality will prevail.
Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar is director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think tank based in New Delhi