China signals desire for closer ties with S-E Asia

Foreign Minister's maiden overseas trip to 4 Asean nations reflects intent

FOR the first time in 15 years, a new Chinese foreign minister will make South-east Asia his first overseas destination, a move signalling Beijing's renewed desire for closer ties with its neighbours, say observers.

China's hope, they add, is that the trip will help assuage tensions with Asean member-states over the South China Sea disputes and also reflect Beijing's openness in working with countries that are close to the United States.

Starting today, Mr Wang Yi will make a six-day visit to Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei in his first foreign trip since his appointment last month.

His two predecessors had made maiden trips to regions elsewhere. For instance, Mr Yang Jiechi, now the State Councillor overseeing foreign policy, visited Egypt in April 2007, while Mr Li Zhaoxing went to Kazakhstan in April 2003.

The last time South-east Asia was the first stop was in April 1998, when Mr Tang Jiaxuan visited Indonesia and Singapore with offers of Chinese aid amid the Asian financial crisis.

Observers say South-east Asia was picked as part of new foreign policy goals set by the Communist Party at its 18th Party Congress last November, which are in building strong neighbourly ties and setting up a new type of relationship between major powers.

Said Shanghai-based foreign policy expert Yang Cheng: "The visit shows that relations with neighbours are as important as China's ties with major powers.

"It sends a message that China values relations with every neighbouring country, regardless of its size, because China believes the future world order has to be shaped not just by big countries, but also with involvement of the smaller countries."

Mr Wang's choice of countries for his trip is also significant in several aspects, say analysts.

First, the quartet are neither China's close friends (Myanmar and Cambodia) nor bickering neighbours (Vietnam and the Philippines). Instead, the four countries were likely picked for being neutral and also influential in the 10-member Asean group now chaired by Brunei, observers say.

Beijing is likely hoping the quartet can better understand China's views over the South China Sea through Mr Wang's visit, and articulate them to other Asean claimant-states, say analysts.

Said analyst Xu Liping of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences: "The hope is that they will play a neutral role and help foster peace and stability in the region."

China is locked in territorial rows with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei - with Taiwan also making claims - within the maritime hub that is crucial to international shipping lanes.

Dr Yang, of the East China Normal University, believes Mr Wang could also stress the concept of "shared responsibility", on top of shared interests, with the four countries. "We hope they will play a part in areas such as maintaining stability and peace in the South China Sea and also in the Asia-Pacific region," he added.

Also, by visiting Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore, which have strong and growing relations with the US, China wants to show it is open to working with countries that are close to other major powers, said analyst Zhang Mingliang from Jinan University in Guangzhou.

"China doesn't oppose any country's right to having good ties with others. What it objects to is when such ties are targeted against China," he said.

kianbeng@sph.com.sg