China is shifting its focus toward the ASEAN, the bloc with which Beijing has shared prickly relations on territorial and economic issues.
“My analysis is that China has shifted their strategic focus into Southeast Asia,” Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said during an interview with a television channel.
There is no denying the fact that the US and its allies gradual rise in the graph of influence across ASEAN has compelled Beijing to review its strategy towards the bloc, which has been historically seen by Beijing as an instrument designed to “encircle China”.
In fact, Beijing has taken a calculated move to checkmate the US-headed Quad and Europe’s ever-increasing footprint in the South Asian region. It has tried to win over its disgruntled Southeast Asian neighbours by conducting face to face talks with the region’s leaders on the pending Code of Conduct (CoC) in the disputed South China Sea.
China and five Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippineslay competing claims over the South China Sea. Disregarding the International Tribunal’s 2016 verdict, China lays claim over the entire South China Sea. But showing their patience, the Southeast Asian countries want to manage tensions in the resource-rich and strategically important waterway through the instrument of Code of Conduct.
As per China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian, consultations over the CoC were to be held at the end of May 2022 in Cambodia, the current chair of the ASEAN. Now into June, there is no update when China will hold negotiations over the CoC. But that doesn’t end China’s political game in the region.
Indonesia, one of the largest countries in the 10-nation ASEAN bloc, is being wooed feverishly by Beijing like a glamorous bride by pouring in investments in infrastructure projects and attracting a significant amount of Indonesian goods into the Chinese market.
In the first quarter of 2022, total investments in Indonesia from China reached $1.4 billion, increasing 40 percent year-on-year. China has become the third-largest investor in Indonesia after Singapore and Hong Kong. In 2021, China invested $3.2 billion in Indonesia. Major Chinese investments in Indonesia include the Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Railway Project.
On the trade front, as per data from the General Administration of Customs of China (GACC), the total trade between Indonesia and China reached $124.3 billion in 2021. Of this trade, share of Indonesian export to China was more than 60 per cent.
Further, to show that China attaches priority to its engagement with Indonesia, Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his meeting with Indonesian Foreign Minister RetnoMarsudi in Tunxi in China’s Anhui province on March 31 said: “China stands ready to work with Indonesia to build a community with a shared future setting an example of solidarity and cooperation among developing countries for common development.”
This might have appeared as a music to the Indonesian Foreign Minister’s ears, but she was not too novice to understand China’s motive; Indonesia is not only highly significant archipelago country, strategically situated in between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, it is also considered as ASEAN’s anchor, enjoying warm relations with the bloc’s members. China wants to capitalise on this enviable position Indonesia has among the ASEAN bloc.
It wants Indonesia as well as Thailand to be in the BRICS grouping. On May 30, China, as the BRICS rotating chair, held a separate session in a “BRICS Plus” format within the framework of the virtual BRICS Foreign Ministers’ meeting.
Representatives of Indonesia, Thailand, Argentina, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Senegal attended the meeting of BRICS Plus held in a virtual format.
It was seen as deft move by China, the Middle Kingdom that took wind out of sales of its rivals when on June 8, it broke ground along with Cambodian officials on the expansion of the Ream Naval Base, a strategically important military outpost on the Gulf of Thailand, which lies close to the Malacca Strait. Cambodia, the current chair of ASEAN, has denied that the Ream Naval Base will serve as a naval facility for China’s PLA, but the US and allies are not ready to subscribe to this argument of Phnom Penh, the ironclad friend of Beijing.
Ream Naval Base is also not far away from the South China Sea, which was recently in the news after an Australian surveillance plane was intercepted by a Chinese military plane when it was flying over the Sea, which is an arm of the western Pacific Ocean.
Reacting over the incident, China’s Foreign Affairs Spokesperson said, “China will never allow any country to violate China’s sovereignty and security or undermine peace and stability in the South China Sea under the pretext of freedom of navigation.”
Experts believe that China’s aggressiveness in the region could be checkmated only when ASEAN in support with the US-led Quad and the AUKUS stops giving any kind of strategic support to Beijing. But this is not something China is not aware of.
Keeping this into account, Beijing prefers a separated rather than a unified ASEAN. A joint ASEAN with a unified strategic outlook will improve policy coordination among member states. It is believed that united Southeast Asian countries can bring a diplomatic mass and persuasive pressure to bear on China. Hence, China wants to engage with ASEAN members individually to maximize its military, diplomatic and economic leverage instead of engaging with the entire ASEAN members.
However, thanks to the Ukraine war, the US is unsparing in its effort to strengthen its reach in the Southeast Asian region. The Quad has announced spending $50 billion on infrastructure build up in the Indo-Pacific region, while the newly launched Indo-Pacific Economic Framework has as many as seven ASEAN countries like Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam as its members. All this has forced China to invest money and confidence in building a strong relationship with ASEAN. Yet the question is: Can China compromise with its claim over the South China Sea?