Since economic recovery and regional security have become the two most important priorities for ASEAN at this moment, China seems to be the most understanding and comes as a reliable partner.
China marked the 30th anniversary of establishing its dialogue relations with ASEAN by hosting an in-person special ASEAN-China Foreign Minister’s meeting and Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) Foreign Ministers Meeting in Southwest China’s Chongqing Municipality from June 7th-8th. Some analysts stated that over the past three decades, the China-ASEAN relationship has edged “closer and stronger,” despite frictions over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, US influence in the region seems to be fading. The negative sentiment of Southeast Asia that feels neglected by the United States has been reinforced after a planned online meeting between the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and South-East Asian diplomats failed last month.
The ASEAN’s Foreign Ministers and China shared their normative vision in developing the bilateral relations by accentuating mutual benefits, respect and understanding, thus contributing to peace, stability, and prosperous development in both the region and the world. In a virtual press conference, Indonesian Foreign Ministers Retno Marsudi said that the meeting prioritized addressing the issues of Covid-19, enhancing cooperation for sustainable economic recovery, and promoting regional peace and stability.
Regarding the first issue, Southeast Asian countries should indeed be grateful to China for its strong commitment to speed up the supply of COVID-19 vaccines and support the bloc to improve its vaccine research, development, production, and distribution capacity. Increased cooperation in vaccination is expected to solve the problem of the global vaccine gap, which is very at risk of prolonging the pandemic period, including in Southeast Asia. Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan characterized the ASEAN-China collaboration in handling Covid-19 across the region as “very effective.” In addition, since two China-made vaccines, Sinopharm and Sinovac, have been added to the World Health Organization’s Emergency-use list, the vaccination Cooperation projects can also be carried out through the COVAX facility. Furthermore, ASEAN countries hope that China will increasingly support the ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund program.
The post-pandemic recovery also becomes an essential issue of these two parties’ development orientation. ASEAN ultimately needs China to quickly rise from adversity due to the pandemic situation. Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, revealed China’s promise to build a new high landscape and new situation for China-ASEAN cooperation after the pandemic through the implementation of the ASEAN Overall Recovery Framework. Through facilitated trade and investment deals, effectively utilizing the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA), and soon put the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Agreement into effect.
Related to regional peace and stability, there are at least three issues that should be a concern: the Myanmar crisis, the Indo-Pacific issue, and the South China Sea disputes. Unfortunately, the joint ASEAN-China statement fall short of mentioning anything in regards to resolving the political crisis in Myanmar, even though the Myanmar junta’s Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin attended the Chongqing meeting. This situation is in stark contrast to the ASEAN-China commitment at the previous session. During the individual talk with four ASEAN counterparts separately a couple of months ago, China agreed to coordinate with the Southeast Asian Bloc and provide the necessary assistance. This is possible due to the fact that China shares similar voices with ASEAN on this matter, which is urgent to block any intervention from external forces and give more opportunity for the region to find the best solutions on their own as well as mediating the conflicting parties in internal Myanmar. On the other hand, this situation, of course, destroys the morale of the pro-democracy groups because other countries seem to legitimize the military regime.
Furthermore, this meeting also seems to be a breath of fresh air to reconcile the South China Sea dispute. The Joint Statement Point 13 clearly explains that ASEAN-China (some are claimant nations) have vowed to peacefully resolve maritime row in accordance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Furthermore, they pledged to “uphold the freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes...”
Finalizing negotiation on Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea is another crucial issue need to be handled immediately between the two parties. ASEAN-China has been signed the Declaration of Conduct of Parties (DoC) in Cambodia November 2002. At least 17 years later, China-ASEAN agreed to increase the declaration to become a Code of Conduct (CoC) as a guideline for countries’ attitude towards the South China Sea. This agreement, which is expected to be finalized by the end of this year, could standardize maritime interactions in the waterway, including the question of where each nation’s fishing fleets could go.
Is it a sign for ASEAN to take sides closer to China? Well, it is impossible in principle. ASEAN has set up norms and mechanisms for regional affairs that guided them to a so-called “neutral” geopolitical platform. ASEAN countries in this regard understand well how to play a “Balanced Diplomacy.” They have their own mechanism and means to get the most out of major powers’ clashes. In practice however, such trends and evolution in their relationship may raise eyebrows to other regional and global stakeholders in the great game of our time, unfolding in the Indo-Pacific.