Beijing to use key regional meetings to launch charm offensive on southern neighbours

Two key meetings will provide chance to push broader diplomatic goals of boosting ties with southern neighbours and countering US moves

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 October, 2013, 12:47pm

Beijing will showcase its renewed focus on Southeast Asia and push for more trade deals during two major summits in the region, as it seeks to gain leverage in its various territorial disputes.

President Xi Jinping will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) summit in Bali later this week during a trip that includes his first visits to Indonesia and Malaysia since becoming president in March. He arrives in Jakarta today.

Next week, a high-level Chinese delegation - led by Premier Li Keqiang - will attend the East Asia Summit in Brunei before visiting Thailand and Vietnam.

All the countries are members of the Association of Southeast Asians Nations, while Vietnam has emerged as one of the most vocal critics of Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The visits are part of a broader effort by Beijing to bolster ties with its southern neighbours amid Washington's "pivot" towards the Asia-Pacific region.

Aside from increasing its military presence in the region, the United States has also sought to strengthen economic ties.

That effort includes its Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade deal being negotiated with Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. China has not been invited to the talks, with some analysts saying that Washington fears its inclusion would weaken US dominance of the scheme.

Beijing may also find it tough to accept the terms of the partnership, which covers a broad area that includes tax and currency exchange rates.

Jin Canrong , an international relations professor at Renmin University, said Beijing would probably use the visits to promote its own multinational trade agreement: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that would involve 10 Asean member states, as well as Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

"The RCEP is more plausible in the short run because free trade agreements have already been signed among nations that would participate in the partnership," he said.

Still, Beijing would be careful to ensure such talks did not overshadow Apec, since China will host next year's leaders' meeting, analysts said.

Former Singaporean foreign minister George Yeo said Xi's trip showed "a strong desire by China for good long-term, mutually-beneficial relations with Asean".

"Asean welcomes China's proposal for an enlargement of the free-trade agreement between China and Asean," said Yeo, who is vice-chairman of the Kerry Group, which controls the company that publishes the South China Morning Post.

In Bali, Xi will also update regional leaders on the state of China economy and reform measures. He is expected to announce a series of co-operation agreements on trade, aviation, technology and fisheries while in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Beijing's ties with the region will also feature at the East Asia Summit in Brunei next Wednesday and Thursday. Ahead of the gathering, Li has said that China would find peaceful resolutions to its South China Sea disputes and called for expanded regional trade and infrastructure.

Zhuang Guotu , director of Xiamen University's Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, said that territorial disputes would not dominate these meetings as they had at past summits because China hosted Asean nations in Suzhou last month to discuss a code of conduct for the South China Sea disputes.

"Asean nations have already reached some consensus on the code of conduct," Zhuang said. "The disputes will not be the main focus as it was last year even though nations like Vietnam and the Philippines will still raise the issue at the meetings."

Additional reporting by Toh Han Shih