China ‘clear winner’ at Asean summit

China showed at the regional bloc meeting in Manila earlier this month that it is eclipsing the United States as the leader in Asia, writes Richard Heydarian

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 August, 2017, 4:03pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 August, 2017, 9:43pm

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations ministerial meetings in Manila underscored the growing clout of China as the emerging regional leader. The event served as a pungent litmus test on China and the United States’ rivalry for strategic ascendancy in Asia.

Much of the discussions focused on security challenges to the Asia-Pacific region, namely North Korea’s burgeoning ballistic missile capability and ongoing maritime spats in the South China Sea.

On both issues, China suavely avoided criticism and steered the regional consensus in its own image.

In contrast, the United States struggled to exercise its traditional leadership role, hobbled by political scandals at home and, more importantly, growing doubts over American commitment to the region.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was arguably the most visible and nimble participant in the event. He held meetings with all of his key counterparts, including the North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong. Cutting a dashing figure, Wang held his own press conference where he engaged an eager international media on a wide range of topics and seamlessly transitioned from one thorny topic to the other with characteristic verve and vigour.

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Far from acting as an obstinate strategic patron, the Chinese diplomat chastised North Korea and told it not to provoke and damage the international community’s goodwill. After all, much of the region has been perturbed by Pyongyang’s latest intercontinental ballistic missile test and its increasingly provocative and destabilising behaviour in recent years.

To the delight of the international community, China, along with Russia, supported the latest round of sanctions against North Korea at the United Nations Security Council. No less than US President Donald Trump welcomed China’s decision on his Twitter account, marking a perceptible shift in his non-stop criticism of China in recent weeks over the latter’s alleged support for Pyongyang.

Washington welcomed Beijing’s cooperation on the North Korean issue, although a senior State Department official reiterated that they were interested to see “China is continuing to implement fully the sanctions regime” rather than engaging in the “episodic back and forth that we’ve seen”.

Wang held an “intensive conversation” with his US counterpart, Rex Tillerson, who was among the 27 foreign ministers from across the Asia-Pacific region attending the meetings. The Asean confab was a major test for the US Secretary of State, who has struggled to leave a consequential imprint on the Trump administration’s Asia policy.

There are growing rumours in Washington that the former ExxonMobil executive could be on the way out as he struggles to appoint his preferred deputies and secure the White House’ full support on a range of international issues.

North Korea says nuclear and ballistic missile tests not up for negotiation despite Asia-Pacific ministers’ ‘grave concern’

To be fair, Tillerson managed to get regional support on the Korean peninsula conundrum, with Asean leaders expressing grave concern over the reclusive regime’s burgeoning nuclear and missile capability. They called upon Pyongyang to contribute to “the Asia-Pacific as a region of lasting peace, stability, friendship and prosperity”.

But the American diplomat was bogged down by disagreements over climate change, free trade and human rights issues with Asean countries. He also neither offered any major American trade and investment initiative to entice Asian partners, nor did he provide a clear blueprint on US military strategy in contested waters such as the South China Sea.

Despite Vietnam’s best efforts to rally Asean against China, the majority of Southeast Asian countries refused to criticise Beijing over the South China Sea issue. In its final communiqué, Asean failed to mention any “legally-binding” code of conduct in the disputed waters.

There was also no mention of the international tribunal ruling in the Hague which dismissed most of China’s claims to the South China Sea. Even the word “serious concern”, which has repeatedly appeared in Asean statements regarding maritime spats in previous years, was visibly absent.

As a concession to Vietnam, though, the communiqué mentioned how Asean “took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers” on reclamation and militarisation in the South China Sea, but clearly implied that there was no consensus on the issue.

Crucially, the regional leaders also implicitly criticised the United States, Japan and other Western powers when they emphasised the necessity for “all other states”, aside from claimants themselves, to exercise self-restraint in the disputed areas.

This could be interpreted as a subtle jab at the US Navy’s freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, as well as plans by other powers such as Japan, India, Australia, France and Britain to ramp up their footprint in the area.

Is negotiating framework deal a sign that Beijing has weakened opposition in South China Sea?

The communiqué perfectly rhymed with China’s repeated calls in recent weeks for non-interference by outside powers in the South China Sea. Wang made it clear that the way forward was for Beijing and Asean to resolve the issue among themselves through the negotiation of a non-aggression pact.

On both the North Korean and South China Sea issues, China projected itself as a responsible regional power. Under the Philippines’ chairmanship of Asean, we are beginning to catch a glimpse of a Pax Sinica in Asia.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author