China has upped the ante in its fight with the United States in Southeast Asia, playing up concerns among regional neighbours about a new Indo-Pacific security grouping led by Washington, while promising to strengthen trade links and anti-pandemic cooperation.
During a charm offensive to five Southeast Asian countries this week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pushed for post-coronavirus economic cooperation, pledged to provide Covid-19 vaccines to Malaysia and Laos, and signed a free-trade agreement with Cambodia, one of China’s closest allies. In Bangkok, he offered support to the embattled Thai government, which has come under attack recently from student-led protests.
During his visits Yi repeatedly portrayed Washington and its Indo-Pacific strategy as “a huge security risk” to Asia. During a stop in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, he slammed the so-called Quad – the US-led strategic bloc with Japan, India and Australia – as an “Indo-Pacific Nato”.
In an interview with Xinhua on Friday, Wang again sought to play on fears among the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations that the body’s pivotal role in regional affairs might be challenged by the US-led security initiative targeting Beijing.
“[The aim of the Quad] is to trumpet the old-fashioned Cold War mentality to stir up confrontation among different groups and blocs and to stoke geopolitical competition, in a bid to maintain the dominance and hegemonic system of the US,” he was quoted as saying.
“It will undoubtedly damage Asean centrality and undermine regional peace and stability, contravening the common, long-term interests of regional countries.”
Wang’s tour came as the US has intensified its efforts to woo countries in a bid to build an international coalition to counter China’s expanding influence in the region amid tensions over the South China Sea.
Washington unveiled a new partnership last month with five Southeast Asian countries along the Mekong River, trying to lure Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam away from China with economic and other forms of aid.
While Southeast Asian nations have generally welcomed Washington’s pivot to the region and its regional security role as tensions have soared between China and the US in the South China Sea, they are more cautious when it comes to the Quad, which Beijing has billed as an anti-China front line.
Asean unveiled its official stance on Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy in June, highlighting suspicion and concerns among member nations that a new US-led multilateral group with key regional partners may threaten Asean’s central role in Southeast Asia and eventually eclipse the grouping of 10 smaller nations.
In response, Wang warned regional countries to be vigilant to America’s “dangerous” strategy to stoke tensions, and called on China’s neighbours to work with Beijing to remove “external disruption” in the disputed South China Sea.
He said China’s position that “the South China Sea should not become a sea for great powers to play games or for gunboats to overrun in the face of foreign forces stirring up trouble and creating tension” was generally recognised by regional countries, according to Xinhua.
Wang’s remarks came as Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was set to embark on his maiden overseas trip from Sunday to Vietnam – Asean’s current chair – and Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy.
Analysts say Wang’s and Suga’s trips illustrate the importance of Southeast Asia in the superpower rivalry between China and the US and its allies.
“Southeast Asia is the focal point of the deepening geopolitical rivalry,” said Xu Liping, an expert from the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
“China has to react and respond when the US tries to pull countries into its orbit, a move set to dilute Asean’s central role in the regional architecture,” he said, adding that China had no ambitions to seek dominance or other geopolitical agenda.
As China and the US battled for regional influence, Asean countries would inevitably be left in a dilemma that would make it difficult for them to reach consensus on how to deal with an increasingly assertive Beijing, Xu said.
Also, while Asean had risen to become China’s top trading partner this year amid a growing interdependence, Japan remained one of the region’s top investors and economic partners, he said.
According to Kuni Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat and special adviser to Suga’s cabinet, both Vietnam and Indonesia are key targets for the US to strengthen security cooperation and defence ties in the region, which partly explained the new prime minister’s travel plans.
“The timing of Suga’s visit is perfect”, he said in an article in the Japanese Times newspaper on Thursday, considering Japan’s desire to “strengthen ties with countries in the region amid growing tensions between its main security ally, the United States, and its biggest trading partner, China.”