The Straits Times says

Flexibility can bring ties to new heights

It says something about the salience that the South China Sea issue has gained in recent years when a large part of the statement by the co-chairs of a Special Asean-China foreign ministers' meeting in Chongqing focused on the stretch of open sea that has become a geopolitical flash-point in recent years. After the meeting, it appears that negotiations between Asean and China - impeded thus far by a pandemic that made face-to-face talks impossible - will resume next month in Jakarta. Notably, the statement made no mention of Myanmar, the Asean member that has come under scrutiny since February, when the military ousted the elected leadership and seized power.

The meeting, which marked the 30th anniversary of Asean-China dialogue relations, saw both sides discuss how to advance their strategic partnership to "new heights". If this fell short of the "comprehensive strategic partnership" that China had previously sought as a new benchmark of ties, Beijing should take some time to mull over why. It may get an indication from the State of South-east Asia 2021 survey published in February by the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, which showed that distrust of China, which stood at 51.5 per cent in 2019, had now climbed to 63 per cent. At the centre of this has been China's claim to vast areas of the South China Sea also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2021, with the headline 'Flexibility can bring ties to new heights'. Subscribe