Asean charmed, not spellbound, by China's moves

With the continued US presence in Asia becoming shakier, and China stepping up efforts to gain influence, how is Asean reacting? Two writers give their views.

EARLIER this month, Chinese leaders pulled off a charm offensive in Asean that could well go down in the history books.

Speaking to Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) leaders in Bali, Chinese President Xi Jinping doled out the goodies. These included more than doubling China-Asean trade to US$1 trillion (S$1.24 trillion) by 2020 and setting up an Asian infrastructure development bank. He also reaffirmed a Chinese pledge to complete negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a free trade area that includes Asean, China and another five Asian-Pacific countries.

Speaking to Asean leaders in Brunei, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said Beijing would turn the disputed South China Sea into "a blessing for all". In April, China had also finally given the green light for consultations (but not formal negotiations) on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.

The media made a quick assessment: China is gaining points, even as US President Barack Obama found himself stuck at home trying to manage the government shutdown.

Some perspective is needed here. As Dr Jeffrey Bader, the former East Asia senior director at the US National Security Council, put it, quick assessments that an American absence at Apec represents a victory for China reflects "lazy journalism".

Yes, the US rebalance has triggered a raft of suspicion in China about containment by Washington. But the United States has not really lost anything from Mr Obama's absence.

Negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement involving the US and 11 more countries (excluding China), is well on its way to being completed.

And despite cuts in its defence budget, the US is deploying Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles to Japan next year. It will deploy its new F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, also in Japan, in 2017 and its Marines will soon build a new command post in the Philippines to monitor the South China Sea.

"China is a long way from undermining America's position in South-east Asia," argues Dr Benjamin Schreer, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.

Despite all its effusions of camaraderie and cooperation to Asean, it is worth noting that there is little change in China's general approach to the grouping.

It is well known that China uses economic incentives to carve a sphere of influence in Asia - at America's expense. Lord Ismay, a former Nato secretary-general, once famously quipped that Nato's mission was to "keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down". For China, it might well be to "keep Asean in, the Americans out and Japan down".

The classic example is Taiwan. For a long time, Taiwan was hailed as an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" against communism. Now, Taipei and Beijing have wrapped up a slew of economic and trade deals that have seen the former being locked increasingly in a panda hug. Only recently, Taiwan's Defence Ministry said China will be capable of mounting a successful invasion of the island by 2020.

On a recent research trip to China, I was also intrigued by the level of triumphalism among my counterparts at various Chinese think-tanks. Many analysts repeated what Mr Li said in Brunei - that while China is willing to consult with Asean about the South China Sea dispute, it will not compromise on its claims. They were also adamant that China's actions in the South China Sea augured stability - and not instability - for the region.

The director of one think-tank raised his eyebrows quizzically when I asked him about the "assertive" nature of China's actions in the South China Sea, such as edging the Philippines out of the Scarborough Shoal. "China is assertive? Wouldn't you defend your house when it's being burgled?" he countered.

Another academic told me that Beijing's position on the South China Sea was clear - it claims all the maritime features and areas within the so-called nine-dashed line. It would continue to press for bilateral - not multilateral - talks with disputant countries, he said. And this is a worthy enterprise, he added, stressing that China has usually lost when it comes to border delimitation issues.

Still, bilateral deals might put smaller countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam at a disadvantage and show that China does not buy into the legitimacy of multilateral regimes such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

To their credit, Asean diplomats did not buy into China's charm offensive - at least not totally. The grouping said it "noted with appreciation" China's proposed treaty on good-neighbourliness and cooperation, and added that it would study China's proposal more carefully.

For now, as always, the default strategy for Asean countries is to keep the Chinese and Americans keen in the region - and to keep the gunpowder dry.

Malaysia has intensified military cooperation with the US. Recently, it announced plans to deploy Marines at a naval base close to James Shoal - the location of the People's Liberation Army Navy exercises in March that underscored China's assertion of its South China Sea claims.

In the early 1970s, then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was asked about the impact of the French Revolution. He answered that it was "too early to say".

It turned out that Zhou was not referring to the 1789 storming of the Bastille, but the 1968 student riots in Paris. But the point remains - Chinese leaders have a unique way of thinking long term.

Yes, China's latest charm offensive is aimed at changing Asia's geostrategic equation in the long run. But the fact is that it has not done so substantively - yet.

The writer, a former ST journalist, is a Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (Asia), the think-tank which organises the annual SLD.