China's efforts to boost ties with ASEAN, Europe may not bear fruit

Kyodo News

Posted at Sep 10 2020 01:34 AM

An activist burns a photograph of Chinese President Xi Jinping during a protest in Jammu, India. Channi Anand, AP/File

BEIJING - China's efforts to deepen ties with ASEAN and Europe amid escalating tensions with the United States may not bear fruit, jeopardizing the Communist Party's endeavor to bolster its influence in the global arena, diplomatic sources said.

China has been aiming to boost its clout among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations by promising to provide new coronavirus vaccines if it succeeds in developing them, while recently sending high-ranking diplomats to Europe to get closer to the region.

But some ASEAN members and European countries, along with Washington, have taken a stern look at the mainland's controversial moves in the East China Sea and hard-line approach to Taiwan, which would eventually drive China into a corner, the sources said.

Beijing's rhetoric on Taiwan and its actions in the nearby waters "have triggered a backlash from ASEAN and Europe," one of the diplomatic sources said.

China has started to make conciliatory gestures to ASEAN and Europe as US President Donald Trump has been strengthening his offensive against Beijing over several economic and security matters in the run-up to the presidential election in November.

Vaccine development is one of the key disputes between the world's two major powers.

China has so far been seen as a front-runner in the intensifying race to develop vaccines, with its medical institutions conducting Phase 3 clinical trials of drugs, the final step before approval, according to the World Health Organization.

During a telephone conversation with Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo on Aug. 31, Xi emphasized the importance of supporting companies of the two nations in carrying out cooperation on vaccine development, China's Foreign Ministry said.

The ministry also said the president of Indonesia, the most populous country among ASEAN members, "thanked China for supporting Indonesia's fight against the virus, especially in the form of vaccine cooperation."

On Sept. 1, China's foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi held talks in Myanmar with leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Yang, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party's Central Committee, was quoted by the ministry as telling Suu Kyi that Beijing will share coronavirus vaccines, "once successfully developed in China, with Myanmar on a priority basis."

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has faced criticism for backing down on the nation's territorial claims in the South China Sea contested with Beijing after gaining assurances about receiving coronavirus vaccines from the Asian power.

At an online foreign ministerial gathering between China and ASEAN on Wednesday, hosted by Vietnam, the two sides discussed issues including the virus outbreak and a "code of conduct" to avert clashes in the South China Sea.

Beijing, however, also has been at odds with Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam over jurisdiction in the sea -- one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

Asserting sovereignty over almost the entire maritime area, China has rapidly built artificial islands with military infrastructure in the waters. Beijing launched a series of ballistic missiles into the sea late last month, the US government said.

In July, the Trump administration said it is taking a tougher stance against Beijing's maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea, calling its claims to offshore resources across most of the waters "completely unlawful."

A diplomatic source in Beijing from a Southeast Asian country said, "We are friendly with China," but some of the 10 ASEAN members are "reluctant to get along with China" even though they want to obtain vaccines.

"Xi Jinping should know" that China "cannot play all the ASEAN leaders like a violin," the source said.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

China's relations with Europe, meanwhile, have become shaky after the Czech Republic's Senate speaker, Milos Vystrcil, and his delegation made a six-day visit to Taiwan through earlier this month despite Beijing's strong opposition to official contact with the self-governed island.

Following the trip, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Beijing "won't take a laissez-faire attitude or sit idly by" and would make Vystrcil "pay a heavy price" for his "short-sighted behavior and political opportunism."

Such remarks by Wang, who visited Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, France and Germany from Aug. 25 through Sept. 1, have drawn protests from Europe.

The Czech Republic achieved democracy and freedom as a result of the "Velvet Revolution" that overthrew the communist regime in 1989.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said at a joint press conference with Wang after their meeting in Berlin that Europeans "act in close cooperation" and "threats (against the Czech Republic) don't fit in here."

France has also expressed eagerness to tie up with the Czech Republic, indicating it will work in tandem with democratic Taiwan that has been separately governed from the communist mainland since they split in the wake of a civil war in 1949.

A diplomat source in Beijing from a European nation said Wang's "gaffe" has "motivated democratic partners to unite to counter communist China."

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has asked like-minded countries to join hands with Washington to confront the Chinese Communist Party, which he says has been denying freedom and attempting to dominate the South China Sea.

Many of democratic European nations would become "more willing to cooperate" with the United States, the source said, adding Wang may have "deprived China of a chance to consolidate its hegemony" across the globe.