The Association of Southeast Asian Nations once more found itself serving as a shock absorber between great powers last week. The occasion was an online summit of Chinese and Asean leaders, where President Xi Jinping emphasised Beijing's strong commitment to the bloc and announced a "new milestone" in relations.
The summit, commemorating the 30th anniversary of dialogue between China and Asean, was convened at the request of Beijing. Mr Xi chaired the event, a role normally filled by Premier Li Keqiang. But China's leader has been on a roll lately, having been declared a Communist Party demigod alongside Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and after a successful virtual summit with US President Joe Biden.
On one hand, Mr Xi's participation in the event is seen as a signal of his extended control over foreign affairs. It also indicates China's ambition to play a more prominent role in Asean and greater Asia.
"China was, is and will always be Asean's good neighbour, friend and partner," he declared, stressing the necessity for both sides to build a safe and secure home together.
"The Covid-19 pandemic has once again proved that no place on Earth is an insulated island enjoying absolute security, and only universal security brings genuine security."
Announcing the establishment of the China-Asean comprehensive strategic partnership, Mr Xi said it would give strong impetus to regional and global peace, stability, prosperity and development.
Trade between China and Asean has skyrocketed by 85 times since the two sides formally established their dialogue in 1991. China has been Asean's largest trading partner for the last 12 consecutive years, and Asean became China's largest trading partner last year. In the first half of this year, bilateral trade jumped 38%, with mutual investment exceeding US$310 billion.
President Xi said Beijing is ready to import more quality products from Asean countries, including buying up to $150 billion worth of agricultural products in the next five years. He also pledged another $1.5 billion in development assistance in the next three years to support the bloc's fight against Covid and promote economic recovery, and announced a new scientific exchange programme.
The 10 Asean members and China are all looking forward to benefiting from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which takes effect on Jan 1. Beijing has also signified its interest in joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) which includes four Asean members -- Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam -- together with Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand and Peru.
Besides economic promises, Mr Xi said Beijing was ready to sign the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone agreement, known as the Bangkok Treaty and signed in 1995 by the 10 Asean members.
A protocol for the treaty was issued for five nations that had nuclear weapons at the time -- China, Russia, France, the UK and the US. China would be the first of the five to sign if it follows through on Mr Xi's words.
The president's statement was likely made with Aukus in mind, as the trilateral defence agreement between the US, the UK and Australia will give Australia access to nuclear-powered submarines. The pact is viewed as creating a new counterweight against China's increasing assertiveness.
On the same day as Mr Xi's appearance at the China-Asean summit, the Group of Seven industrialised nations said Asean countries had been invited to attend the G7 foreign ministers' meeting from Dec 10-12 in Liverpool, England. Ministers from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have accepted invitations so far.
The surprise invitation has once again raised questions about whether Asean will be pulled by the US and other Western countries into an anti-China alliance.
China, meanwhile, is likely to view this move by the G7 as an attempt to get Asean to endorse Aukus, and possibly further military approaches to keep China at bay. However, Malaysia and Indonesia have voiced concerns that Aukus could stoke a regional arms race.
Asean has shown cohesion, strategic resilience and adaptability amid the complicated competition among major powers. At the same time, it is increasingly wary of Beijing's aggression in the South China Sea and the risk of becoming overly reliant economically on China.
Asean appreciates China's commitment to the region and welcomes the next level of partnership. But if seeking regional peace and stability is the goal as Mr Xi stated, China should reassess its inconsistent foreign policy stance instead of brandishing its might.
(Courtesy bangkok Post)