Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s latest Asia tour was viewed by some foreign observers as a likely move to counter the US’ regional influence. Such speculations mistook the purpose of the trip and the nature of the relations between China and Southeast Asia.
Wang just wrapped up his weeklong trips to Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore and South Korea. The foreign minister discussed a wide range of cooperation, including anti-epidemic and development cooperation and BRI cooperation, with senior officials in these countries.
Coming after recent high-profile visits by US officials in Southeast Asia, Wang’s trip was widely seen as pushback against Washington. In August, US Vice President Kamala Harris visited Vietnam and Singapore, where she tried to reassert the US’ political presence and sway these countries to join in pressing China. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also traveled there in July.
Those analyses simply applied the framework of “great power competition” to interpret Wang’s visits. However, it is narrow-minded to understand China-ASEAN ties through the lens of “China-US competition.” Instead of countering the US, China focuses on boosting ties with its neighbors, which also fits the interests of the Southeast Asian countries.
Connected by mountains, rivers and seas, China and the Southeast Asia region share close affinity and interests and have developed their ties by leaps and bounds over the past three decades. China and ASEAN, now each other’s largest trading partners, have seen trade skyrocket 85 times since the establishment of the dialogue relations in 1991. The two sides have also taken the lead in joint COVID-19 response, and have delivered fruitful progress in political security and people-to-people and cultural exchanges. The relations have become a pacesetter for regional cooperation.
Though a few disputes between China and some countries remain, including the South China Sea issue, the involved parties have reached consensus to resolve them through dialogue and consultations and enhance mutual trust. Despite US attempts to wedge, the stability of China-ASEAN relations will not be disrupted and the trend of regional integration will not be impeded.
Pursuing win-win cooperation between China and Southeast Asia does not target any other country. Wang’s visits demonstrate China’s efforts of fortifying cooperation with its close neighbors and important partners and building a community with a shared future. The Southeast Asian countries are eyeing more exchanges with China out of their interests.
And Southeast Asia does not like to see confrontation between China and the US as that would bring enormous uncertainties to the world. The ASEAN countries are reluctant to choose sides between the two influential economies. The region will benefit if China and the US could appropriately manage differences and have more positive engagement. A healthy China-US relationship is also what China has been emphasizing and expects to embrace.
China-ASEAN relations have become the most successful and dynamic model of cooperation in the Asia-Pacific. China has firmly supported ASEAN centrality and played an important role in the region’s economic recovery and prosperity. Behind Wang’s visits is not hegemonic thinking from China but pragmatic reasons from both sides, and the two sides will see enhanced connectivity following the visits.