Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was quoted by Xinhua on Wednesday as saying that relations between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have matured over the last 25 years, since the organization’s founding.
This comes as Li arrives in Vientiane for his first official visit to Laos, where he will attend the East Asia Summit. During the visit, Li will also attend the 19th China-ASEAN leaders’ meeting. Incidentally, China is the ASEAN’s most active people-to-people cooperation partner, as well as ASEAN’s largest trading partner. ASEAN is also China’s third largest trading partner.
This comes after a visit by U.S. President Obama as well, where he apologized for the covert bombing campaign in Laos during the Vietnam War. Obama said that the U.S. dropped more ammunition in Laos via bombing than on Japan and Germany combined during the Second World War. He said that given U.S. history, it is America’s duty to let Laos heal the scourge of war.
Obviously that’s hyperbole. One might wonder why now. Part of the reason is that Laos is the chair of ASEAN, and therefore it was required diplomacy. More cynical analysts would point out that it is part of a general pivot to Asia.
Laos is still haunted by the war. The Philippines is now a loose cannon and a meeting was cancelled between Filipino President Duterte and Obama over the use of undiplomatic language by the former. And finally, according to bandwagoning behavior in international relations, smaller states usually gravitate towards their giant neighbors; that giant neighbor is also a huge economic power, and the giant neighbor is more pragmatic in foreign policy and doesn’t raise much concern about values and the internal dynamics of the smaller states. All that leads to ASEAN pivoting towards China.
China on the other hand has shown a fresh willingness to talk to the Philippines, Laos and Vietnam, knowing that the Obama presidency is in its final stages. The Southeast Asian countries know that economics are more important to them than geopolitics, and they are willing to accept trade acceleration and direct Chinese investment. It is admittedly a boon to Asian economic development, and it cuts down conflict risks as well.
China’s Belt and Road initiative is already connecting Asia to Europe. China manages the Sino-ASEAN Investment Cooperation Fund, which funds infrastructure projects and energy projects in Southeast Asia. Laos and Cambodia already have friendly relations with China, the Philippines have finally realized that they need to negotiate with China, and Thailand is steadily shifting towards Beijing economically as well.
In this time, China and ASEAN are steadily approaching détente with regards to the South China Sea issue. As I mentioned in my previous column, there are chances of conflict only when communication breaks down between states. Apparently, the ASEAN and the Chinese government understand that as well.
Both sides are planning to set up a communication hotline for unplanned maritime encounters, as well as for foreign ministries to respond during emergencies. Since 2010, ASEAN and China have been negotiating a legally binding code of maritime conduct in the South China Sea, but progress has been slow.
However, more focus should be on regional cooperation, and an effort should be made so as to ensure that the South China Sea issue doesn’t eclipse everything else on the table.
Sumantra Maitra is a columnist with China.org.cn.