At summit, China courts Southeast Asian nations with trade, aid

A screen shows leaders of nine Southeast Asian countries and China raising their hands to mark their presence at a virtual special ASEAN-China meeting, at which Myanmar was not represented, Nov. 22, 2021.

China’s president told Southeast Asian leaders Monday that Beijing would buy U.S. $150 billion worth of agricultural products from ASEAN states during the next five years, while assuring them that the Asian superpower would not bully or intimidate its neighbors.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping was participating at a special summit to mark 30 years of bilateral dialogue between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. ASEAN member-state Myanmar was conspicuously absent after the Southeast Asian bloc had said it wanted to bar the Burmese military chief and coup leader for a second summit in a row.

“China is ready to import more quality products from ASEAN countries, including buying up to U.S. $150 billion worth of agricultural products from ASEAN in the next five years,” Xi said.

ASEAN last year became China’s biggest trade partner, replacing the European Union, with bilateral trade reaching $732 billion. Xi said China was ready to provide ASEAN with another $1.5 billion of development assistance over the next three years for members-states’ post-covid pandemic economic recovery.

Amid fresh maritime tensions and perceived aggressive actions by Beijing toward Philippine ships in disputed waters, President Xi also spoke about regional security.

“[J]oint efforts are needed to safeguard stability in the South China Sea and make it a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation,” he said.

“China firmly opposes hegemonism and power politics. … China will never seek hegemony, still less bully smaller countries,” Xi said.

Xi made the comments after the Philippines issued a strongly worded protest last week over the Chinese coast guard’s reported firing of a water cannon to block a Filipino resupply mission to a military outpost at a reef in the South China Sea.

But neither Xi nor a joint statement issued by the two sides after the one-day virtual meeting gave a timeline for hammering out a code of conduct for the waterway.

Xi also did not mention competing territorial claims by Beijing and four ASEAN member-states, or address recent alleged incursions by its ships and planes into these nations’ waters or air space, but he referred to these tensions obliquely.

At Monday’s summit, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte spoke out strongly against the Chinese action on Nov. 16, warning that the incident could hurt ties between the two countries.

China had earlier said that the Philippine boats had “trespassed” into China’s waters without permission.

Troubled waters

Beijing claims nearly the entire waterway, including waters within the exclusive economic zones of the four ASEAN claimant states the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam.

A 2016 ruling by an international arbitral tribunal invalidated Beijing’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea, saying that they violated the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In its ruling, the International Court of Arbitration affirmed Manila’s sovereign rights to a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone in the sea.

China rejected this UNCLOS award.

And yet, a joint statement issued by ASEAN and China at the end of Monday’s summit said both sides reaffirmed “the importance of upholding international law, including the 1982 …UNCLOS.”

A first draft of the code of conduct was presented in 2018, but the process has dragged on. In November 2020, ASEAN members said they hoped to complete the code this year, but new and serious waves of the COVID-19 pandemic have delayed the negotiations.

The most urgent issue ASEAN should resolve with China is the code of conduct, according to Renne Pattirajawane, chairman of the Jakarta-based China Studies Center Foundation.

“What’s the status? Was it discussed? This is crucial and must be negotiated immediately. There needs to be a more concrete commitment from China,” Renne told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

According to reports, China was hoping there would be a breakthrough on a Code of Conduct at Monday’s summit, to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the bilateral dialogue, but that appears to not have happened.

Myanmar not represented

ASEAN member-state Myanmar, meanwhile, was not represented at Monday’s summit, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah told reporters.

ASEAN countries had opted not to invite Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the Burmese junta leader, over the military’s failure to take steps to restore democracy in Myanmar after the Feb. 1 coup, Saifuddin said.

Nine of the 10 ASEAN countries had agreed with China’s proposal for Myanmar’s ambassador to Beijing to represent Myanmar at the summit, the Malaysian foreign minister said.

“However, this morning we did not get any final word and the summit went on without the presence of Myanmar,” he said.

In an unprecedented move, ASEAN last month barred Min Aung Hlaing from attending its annual summit, with Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines spearheading the effort to disinvite the junta chief.

“The Chinese side has invited us to the meeting. We are grateful to China for coordinating with ASEAN countries (for us) to attend the meeting,” junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun told news outlets, including Radio Free Asia (RFA), of which BenarNews is an affiliate.

He added that some ASEAN countries had insisted that only a non-political person be allowed to attend the Sino-ASEAN summit.

RFA repeatedly contacted the junta spokesman but did not immediately hear back.

Last week, Reuters news agency had reported that a Chinese envoy was lobbying ASEAN member-states to allow Min Aung Hlaing to attend. A day later, Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah told BenarNews that Jakarta favored banning Min Aung Hlaing from the summit.

When reporters asked Zhao Lijian, the spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, why Myanmar was not represented at the summit, he said many things but did not answer the question.

Myanmar is “an important member of the ASEAN family,” he said.

“China always supports ASEAN solidarity and supports ASEAN in implementing the five-point consensus on Myanmar,” Zhao said, referring to the regional leaders’ calls for the military to end violence and hold dialogue with members of the deposed government, among other steps.

Hla Kyaw Zaw, a China-based political analyst, noted that Beijing wanted to invite the junta leader to the summit but could not overcome opposition from ASEAN members. She said the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s special envoy for Asia, Sun Guoxian, had visited Singapore and Brunei earlier this month to lobby ASEAN, after which he went to Myanmar.

“China seems to want to keep its relations with the junta intact and at the same time does not want Myanmar to lose face.  So I think he [Sun] visited Myanmar to talk about this whole situation.”

Beijing’s acceptance of ASEAN’s decision shows that China no longer is doing what it used to do to defend successive Myanmar military dictatorships in the past, Hla Kyaw Zaw said.

According to another analyst, Than Soe Naing, Min Aung Hlaing is now in a bind because China no longer fully supports the junta.

“Min Aung Hlaing is at war with the whole country and so China seems to be reluctant to give [him] further support. And to give Min Aung Hlaing a decent exit …,” Than Soe Naing told RFA.

“So we can say Min Aung Hlaing is trapped diplomatically. And if he cannot get along with China, he will be in a jam.”

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, with contributions from the Mandarin Service of RFA.

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