As President Biden heads to Europe for the Group of Seven (G7) and NATO summits and seeks joint measures to address the challenge from China, China hosts the foreign ministers of the ten Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries in its own home. Taking advantage of the U.S. neglect of ASEAN, China is trying to use “vaccine diplomacy” and economic power to boost its relations with ASEAN. However, analysts say that China’s actions in the South China Sea will always be a source of concern for ASEAN countries.
China uses “vaccine diplomacy” to boost ties with 10 ASEAN countries
On June 7 and June 8, China and ASEAN held the “Special Foreign Ministers Meeting on the 30th Anniversary of China-ASEAN Dialogue” and the “6th Foreign Ministers Meeting on Lancang-Mekong River Cooperation” in the Chinese city of Chongqing. During the meeting, Wang Yi also held separate bilateral meetings with the foreign ministers of ASEAN countries and the Secretary-General of ASEAN.
The main topics of the special foreign ministers’ meeting were how to deal with the new epidemic, the South China Sea issue and the difficult Myanmar issue. Before the meeting, China made six proposals for the meeting: deepening cooperation in fighting the epidemic; promoting economic recovery; upgrading relations; reaching a code of conduct for the South China Sea as early as possible; upholding multilateralism; and jointly promoting Asian values.
ASEAN countries have always been an important part of China’s “vaccine diplomacy” puzzle. Wang said at the June 8 meeting that China will provide vaccines to ASEAN countries as much as possible to respond to their needs and work with them to strengthen vaccine research and development, production, vaccination and supervision to enhance regional public health capacity. Wang Yi said China has now provided 100 million doses of the new coronavirus vaccine to ASEAN countries.
The Chinese vaccine is ahead of the U.S. in entering most ASEAN countries. Cambodia, which has close ties with China, is a major user of the Chinese vaccine, with 16 percent of its population now vaccinated. Of all ASEAN countries, only the more affluent Singapore is ahead of Cambodia in terms of the rate of vaccination. Southeast Asian countries are still battling the new crown outbreak and are actively procuring vaccines in hopes of mitigating the outbreak.
In a statement issued after the special foreign ministers’ meeting, ASEAN expressed gratitude to China. The statement said, “ASEAN is very grateful to China for providing vaccines, medical supplies and technical assistance to ASEAN and its member countries. In addressing the challenges of the epidemic, we have seen the wisdom of working closely together in epidemic control and socio-economic recovery.”
In addition to this special foreign ministers’ meeting, interaction between China and ASEAN countries has intensified so far this year. In January, Wang Yi also made an official visit to four Southeast Asian countries, and from late March to early April, the foreign ministers of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines visited China together. According to China, it is interested in raising the level of relations with ASEAN.
The South China Sea issue has always made it difficult for ASEAN to release its feelings toward China
However, analysts believe that providing vaccines to ASEAN, while it will make ASEAN countries grateful to China, will not reduce ASEAN’s concerns about China on other issues, including China’s actions in the South China Sea and the upper Mekong River.
Murray Hiebert is a senior fellow in the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank. He told the Voice of America, “ASEAN has a complicated view of China. On the one hand, they appreciate what China is doing, and I’m sure, as with Chinese investments in ASEAN, vaccines will be appreciated, but at the same time, some of China’s other activities are causing considerable anxiety in ASEAN.”
Of the 10 ASEAN countries, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei all claim partial sovereignty over the South China Sea, while China claims sovereignty over about 90 percent of the South China Sea. Indonesia and China do not have territorial sovereignty disputes, but the two sides have overlapping maritime claims in parts of the South China Sea.
The Philippine foreign minister complained in May about the large number of Chinese “maritime militia ships” gathered and moored in the disputed waters of the South China Sea near the Philippines; on June 1, Malaysia protested that 16 Chinese military transport planes approached Malaysian airspace and conducted “suspicious” activities over the South China Sea. “In late 2019 and early 2020, a standoff erupted between China and Indonesia over fishing protection in the Natuna Islands. Indonesia accuses China of repeatedly sending maritime police vessels to escort fishing vessels fishing in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, and that China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea partially overlap with Indonesia’s Natuna waters, and that Chinese fishermen’s fishing activities are “perfectly legal and reasonable. The dispute between Vietnam and China in the South China Sea is even bigger. Vietnam is supposedly one of the few countries in ASEAN that is willing to side with the United States against China.
China’s dams on the upper reaches of the Mekong River (known as the Lancang River in China) have been a source of conflict between China and the five Mekong countries (Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam). The five Mekong countries believe that China’s construction of dam after dam on the Lancang River has depleted the livelihoods of the lower Mekong countries by blocking water upstream.
The special foreign ministers’ meeting in Chongqing reached an agreement on the South China Sea issue. A statement after the meeting read, “We reaffirm that the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea is a landmark document that embodies the parties’ collective commitment to promote regional peace, stability, mutual trust and confidence in accordance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (hereinafter referred to as “the Convention”) the collective commitment of the parties.”
However, some media reports said the statement appeared the day after the meeting because the Philippines disagreed over the wording used in the South China Sea, and its request to include stronger language in the statement was denied.
In April, the “China-ASEAN Relations Report” published by the Observer Research Foundation of India noted that ASEAN countries’ relations with China fall into three broad categories: Cambodia, Laos and Brunei have the highest dependence and trust on China, and China can even use Cambodia to exert pressure on ASEAN. Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, and the Philippines are “mildly guarded” against China, while Vietnam and Singapore are more actively “guarded” against China.
Biden Administration “Ignores” ASEAN
The U.S. government has been somewhat “neglectful” of ASEAN compared to the high-level activities of China and ASEAN.
Before the special meeting between Chinese and ASEAN foreign ministers, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman just finished a visit to three ASEAN countries: Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand. Sherman is the first senior State Department official to visit ASEAN countries in the Biden administration, four months after the Biden administration took office.
Although Sherman said at each stop of his visit that the U.S. would provide help to the country. But, analysts say, this has left ASEAN feeling “ignored” and “disappointed.
Philippine scholar Richard Javad Heydarian said in a June 6 interview with the Asia Times that ASEAN has been “benignly neglected” in comparison to the Biden administration’s focus on key countries in Europe and the Asia-Pacific.
He said: “‘Disappointed’ is not even enough to express the feelings of ASEAN countries. After four years of President Trump’s tenure, in which he repeatedly missed ASEAN summits and his top aides admonished and threatened ASEAN countries over China, the return of the Democrats has renewed hope that ASEAN countries will fundamentally rebuild the U.S.-ASEAN relationship.”
Following Biden’s election, the 2021 poll by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singaporean think tank, showed that if Southeast Asian countries were forced to choose sides between the U.S. and China, 61.5 percent of respondents said they would support the U.S. over China.
Hedlin is the author of the book “Asia’s New Battleground: The United States, China, and the Scramble for the Western Pacific. He said that in the two months since taking office, President Biden, as well as Secretary Blinken, have held talks, if not multiple talks, with India, Australia and Japan, as well as South Korea, key countries in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, but this is the same administration that failed to mention the Philippines and Thailand, America’s century-old allies in ASEAN, in the Interim National Security Strategic Approach, and President Biden has not rushed to call his ASEAN partners on the phone.
The U.S. and ASEAN were scheduled to hold their first foreign ministers’ meeting by video on May 25, but Blinken, who was flying to the Middle East at the time, canceled the meeting after keeping ASEAN diplomats waiting for a full 45 minutes due to technical problems on a special flight.
U.S. Defense Secretary Austin was scheduled to attend a multilateral security meeting June 4-5 at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore, but the organizers announced the cancellation in light of the growing severity of Singapore’s new crown epidemic.
Hiebert of the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies said ASEAN is really not a priority for the Biden administration compared to India, Japan and Australia in the Asia-Pacific. So far, the Biden administration has not appointed ambassadors to ASEAN and to several key ASEAN countries, including Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines.
According to Hibbert, the Biden administration did initially focus more on responding to the U.S. epidemic and on economic recovery. However, the Biden administration is already making efforts. In March, the U.S., Australia, India and Japan announced that they would provide 1 billion doses of the new crown vaccine to Southeast Asian countries through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). The Biden administration also recently launched a global vaccine assistance initiative, part of which will reach ASEAN countries.
Brian Harding, an expert on Southeast Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the Biden administration’s lack of high-level interaction with ASEAN countries is also related to the current situation in Burma. The Burma crisis is a challenge for the United States.
It’s certainly difficult now to get the U.S. as comfortable as China is with ASEAN as a whole, with the Burmese junta sitting on the sidelines and engaging,” he said. …… Is Secretary Brinker going to sit at the same table as the Burmese foreign minister? Is President Biden going to Brunei to join Min Aung Hlaing (leader of the Burmese junta) at the East Asia Summit? That’s very difficult.”
At this special China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting, Burma’s military government Foreign Minister U Win Na Maung Lwin was joined by Singapore Foreign Minister Wee Boon, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno, Brunei Foreign Affairs Minister-in-Charge Aye Shwe Wan, and ASEAN Secretary General Lim Ngoc Htay.
According to Philippine scholar Hedlin, the growing trend toward authoritarianism among ASEAN countries and the reluctance of most ASEAN countries to visibly side with the United States against China are also factors that have prevented the United States and ASEAN from building further ties. He believes it will take some time for the Biden administration to win over ASEAN countries.
However, Harding of the Institute for Peace believes that it will be less difficult for the U.S. to win back ASEAN because for ASEAN countries, what they want is to achieve a balance between the U.S. and China, not to choose sides. The fact that ASEAN countries are complaining about being “ignored” by the U.S. shows, on the other hand, that ASEAN is not willing to fully embrace China.