Myanmar and the South China Sea to be discussed at the upcoming ASEAN-China summit

Post-coup Myanmar, the controversial South China Sea and a response to a new United States-led defense pact could be the main topics discussed next week at the ASEAN-China special summit marking the 30th anniversary of bilateral relations, political said Analysts.

However, China’s reported desire for a breach of a code of conduct for parties in the South China Sea is unlikely to materialize at the November 22 summit as Southeast Asian applicant nations grapple with Beijing’s escalated actions and militarization on the controversial waterway.

Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and the leaders of the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are expected to attend the meeting that the regional bloc and Beijing will co-host. It will be their second bilateral meeting this year and the first since ASEAN expanded relations with Beijing and Australia.

“AUKUS and Myanmar and the South China Sea … are among the topics that would be the focus of the ASEAN-China Summit,” James Chin, Southeast Asia expert at the University of Tasmania, told BenarNews.

“It will be an opportunity for China to try to use AUKUS as leverage against the West.”

Under the new Three Nations Pact, the United States and the United Kingdom will help Australia get nuclear submarines to counter China’s clout and military expansionism in the Indo-Pacific.

ASEAN-China summits usually focus on “not as sensitive things as trade and investment,” Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat, lecturer in international relations at the Islamic University of Indonesia, told BenarNews.

Thai Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tanee Sangrat pointed out that sensitive issues are not discussed.

“The meeting will highlight three decades of cordial relationship and support China’s constructive role in promoting peace and stability in the region,” Tanee told BenarNews via text message.

But, according to Rakhmat, “recent geopolitical developments make it likely that political and security issues will be discussed at this year’s ASEAN-China summit”.

AUKUS is one of those major geopolitical developments that Beijing has railed against saying it threatens stability in Southeast Asia.

China would want the ASEAN member states on its side, but the member states of the regional bloc are split over AUKUS, which does not serve Beijing’s interests, said Henrick Tsjeng, a researcher in international studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

“From Beijing’s point of view, this means that part of Southeast Asia could possibly still be used by the US to counter China’s regional influence,” Tsjeng told BenarNews.

On the flip side, a divided ASEAN could “help China by ensuring that ASEAN will never be able to form a cohesive bloc that goes against Beijing’s interests in the region,” he added.

Beijing uses “financial incentives”

During their 30-year bilateral relationship, ASEAN and China had “a highly asymmetrical relationship,” and this is mainly reflected in issues related to the controversial South China Sea, said Hunter Marston, an international relations scholar at the Australian National University.

China claims almost all of the sea, including the waters within the exclusive economic zones of four ASEAN members: Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

“Beijing has found it useful to involve ASEAN to advance its regional ambitions, particularly by dividing states that have disagreed on geostrategic disputes such as the South China Sea,” Marston told BenarNews.

“Beijing uses both financial incentives and punitive measures to dictate preferred behavioral norms to the smaller states. For example, China has suspended Filipino banana imports amid maritime disputes … and frozen financial loans to Vietnam due to its oil and gas exploration in disputed waters. “

According to analysts, China’s boats have repeatedly broken the law by entering the waters of Southeast Asian plaintiff states.

As recently as Thursday, Chinese coast guard ships reportedly used water cannons to block a Filipino supply mission to their military outpost on a reef in the South China Sea, Filipino officials alleged. Manila called the action “illegal”.

China’s “Words and Actions Often Mismatch”

Faced with such provocation by Beijing, “ASEAN countries have far less leverage to speak out or defend themselves against Chinese pressure,” said Marston, referring to the dependence of the economies of Southeast Asian countries on China.

The Asian superpower has vigorously promoted infrastructure investments in Southeast Asia through the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, its more than $ 1 trillion program to build rail, port and bridge networks in 70 countries.

“Chinese investments in Southeast Asia remained constant between 10 and 30 percent of the total BRI [Belt, Road Initiative] Investments from 2014 to 2019, ”said Tsjeng from Nanyang Technological University.

“With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, that percentage jumped to 36 percent in 2020 – even though total global BRI investments have plummeted.”

In addition, ASEAN became China’s largest trading partner last year, replacing the European Union – bilateral trade reached $ 732 billion.

Marston of the Australian National University said ASEAN nations would benefit from China’s trade and investment even without bilateral diplomacy. But that commitment “has not succeeded in improving China’s compulsive behavior,” he said.

Because of this, China’s desire to negotiate the code of conduct on the occasion of the 30th think tank.

“China and ASEAN opponents in the maritime sector remain too far apart in the negotiations for this to be realistic this year. Or every year for the foreseeable future, ”Grossman said on Twitter.

China will say it wants peace, stability and security in the region, said Rakhmat of the University of Indonesia.

“[A]When it comes to the South China Sea, [it’s] Words and actions often don’t match, ”he said.

Junta leader supposed to show up?

Meanwhile, it remains unclear whether the Myanmar junta leader, who is the China-ASEAN dialogue coordinator this year, will be represented at the summit at head of state level on Monday.

In an unprecedented move, last month’s ASEAN summit ruled out Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who led the February 1 coup in Myanmar, as he said he had broken promises made to the bloc to take steps to restore To undertake peace and democracy.

Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines led efforts to offload the Burmese junta chief.

However, on Thursday, Reuters news agency reported that a Chinese envoy was lobbying ASEAN member states to allow Min Aung Hlaing to attend.

Four regional diplomatic and political sources, which Reuters failed to cite, said Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore did not want the Burmese junta chief at Monday’s meeting.

BenarNews was unable to independently validate the lobbying, despite Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah saying Indonesia was in favor of banning Min Aung Hlaing from Monday’s meeting.

“I am not aware of any such proposal [to allow Min Aung Hlaing to attend]“He told BenarNews.

“Indonesia remains constant. Indonesia’s position has not changed. “

Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur, Tria Dianti and Ronna Nirmala in Jakarta and Pimuk Rakkanam in Bangkok contributed to this report.


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