Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's 11-day, five-nation swing through South-east Asia that ended this week came at a time of intensifying rivalry with the United States in the region. Mr Wang not only sought to boost economic ties but also explore security cooperation as the US, under President Joe Biden, has refocused on South-east Asia after the relative neglect of the region by his predecessor Donald Trump. Mr Biden invited Asean leaders to Washington in May and later that month travelled to Tokyo where he launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity that counted seven Asean countries among its 14 members, and excluded China. At last month's G-7 meeting, the group of developed nations announced a US$600 billion (S$843 billion) plan to finance infrastructure in developing countries that is meant to counter China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). These economic initiatives came on top of security ones including a rejuvenated Quad, comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US, and Aukus, which brings together Australia, the United Kingdom and the US.
It is therefore not surprising that when Mr Wang visited the Asean secretariat in Jakarta this week, he warned that South-east Asian nations should avoid being used as "chess pieces" in major power rivalries. He also urged Asean countries to oppose "fake regional cooperation that keeps certain countries out" - a clear reference to US-led security and trade groupings that left China out. Instead, he offered President Xi Jinping's Global Security Initiative as China's solution to the global peace deficit and security dilemma. During his visits to Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, he discussed China's BRI projects in those countries, and secured a fresh pledge from Thailand to complete a US$5.2 billion rail link between the two countries, and an agreement in Malaysia to boost ties and speed up projects.