China’s sudden renewed interest in Asean may be more about Aukus than economics
- After a decision to upgrade ties to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’, China’s President Xi Jinping is to meet Asean leaders in November
- Southeast Asia has become key to Beijing’s growing regional economic ambitions and security concerns
A phoenix from the ashes
Several decades ago, East Asia became the epicentre of superpower rivalry during the Cold War. Following a stalemate war in Northeast Asia’s Korean peninsula, in the early 1950s, military and ideological rivalry shifted to the Indochina peninsula and broader Southeast Asia in the 1960s.
China’s renewed focus on Asean
According to reports in late October, Xi has offered to meet Asean leaders at a special summit in November for the purposes of commemorating 30 years of dialogue relations.
If the event is held in Southeast Asia, it will be the first time in over 21 months that China’s leader will have left the country. Xi has otherwise elected to engage in video-calls for recent major global gatherings including Glasgow’s COP26 and Rome’s G20. However, full details of where and how the event will be arranged are yet to emerge.
Prior to the special summit’s announcement, during the 24th Asean-China meeting held via videoconference at the end of October, Asean acceded to China’s recent proposal for upgrading relations from their 2003-launched Strategic Partnership into a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP).
Such a move would signal increased cooperation in a range of sectors, including greater priority in foreign affairs, security and defence, and economic policymaking.
The economic imperative of a CSP with Asean is self-evident. Asean became China’s largest trading partner with record breaking bilateral flows in 2020. This year’s bilateral trade is on track to be even greater with Asean’s exports to China rising by 33 per cent on the previous year, during the first nine months. Over the same period, Asean’s imports from China have gained by 29 per cent.
At the same time, China’s Commerce Ministry reported direct investment from Asean was up 31 per cent year-on-year, from January to September 2021, well above the average gain of 19 per cent from all overseas sources.
However, the sudden renewed impetus by China in its efforts to boost Asean-centrality, through launching a CSP amid celebrations of their 30 year dialogue relations, may have more to do with Beijing’s, and indeed Asean’s, mutual concerns over recent regional geostrategic developments.
Despite reassurances from each of these parties that no arms race will ensue and the pact not being a breach of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, memories of the Cold War amid an ongoing drift toward regional militarisation have clearly stirred up uncomfortable memories across the region.
Given this dichotomy of approaches by individual Southeast Asian governments, it comes as no surprise that China may be minded to more closely coordinate its future regional foreign affairs interests through Asean, as a regional body. This is despite its notoriously slow consensus-based decision-making, but which may well also project more clout in that context.
Most Asean member states, other than Singapore and Brunei, have maintained CSPs with China for years. Even so, China’s promotion of a CSP with Asean represents a distinct shift in favour of Beijing’s desire for closer ties with influential regional institutions, rather than exclusively developing ties with individual countries.
A CSP with China is not necessarily a prescription for living together happily ever after. In spite of the 2013 CSP between China and the EU, the relationship has recently spiralled into acrimony along with sanctions and countersanctions. As for China’s 2015 CSP with the UK heralding a “Golden Era” of relations, the less said, the better.
In the end, to consolidate close ties with Asean, Beijing may have decided that it’s important to look beyond a CSP and to refocus on what Asean is itself offering. In part, this comes down to underlining the importance of engaging with Asean as one of its dialogue partners, which explains why Xi could be going out of his way to commemorate this with a special summit in November.
Bob Savic is a co-author of ‘The Re-Emergence of China – The New Global Era’