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China launches Southeast Asia outreach amid tensions with Philippines

Chinese President Xi Jinping, at right, shakes hands with Indonesian President-elect Prabowo Subianto at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on April 1, 2024, in this photo released by Xinhua News Agency.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, at right, shakes hands with Indonesian President-elect Prabowo Subianto at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on April 1, 2024, in this photo released by Xinhua News Agency.

China launched a fresh round of diplomatic outreach to Southeast Asia this week, as Chinese leader Xi Jinping met with Indonesian President-elect Prabowo Subianto Monday and foreign ministers from Laos, Vietnam and East Timor began to arrive in Beijing Tuesday.

The diplomatic charm offensive comes amid territorial disputes between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, and efforts by the U.S. and its allies to strengthen maritime cooperation in the region.

In his meeting with Prabowo on Monday, Xi promised to “deepen all-round strategic cooperation with Indonesia,” including joint efforts on maritime affairs. Prabowo said he hoped Beijing and Jakarta could strengthen cooperation in areas such as the economy, trade, and poverty alleviation.

During the three-day visit by as many foreign ministers, Beijing hopes to “further work with the three countries to follow through the guidance of the important common understandings between General Secretary and President Xi Jinping and leaders of the three Southeast Asian countries,” said a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson.

Next week, the U.S. will hold a high-profile summit with Japan and the Philippines. Leaders from the three countries are expected to discuss contentious regional security issues, including the territorial dispute between Beijing and Manila.

Some analysts say the string of high-level visits to Beijing by Southeast Asian officials follows a “tried and tested” pattern of Chinese diplomatic behavior.

“With Timor-Leste, China has spent a long time trying to cultivate relations,” said Ja Ian Chong, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the National University of Singapore. “And with Vietnam, Beijing is eager not to see Hanoi and Manila draw closer together.”

In the case of Indonesia, Chong said China hopes to encourage Prabowo to “take a position that is more amenable to its interest.”

“Beijing realizes that there are some tensions [in the region] so it needs to get down to work,” he told VOA by phone.

While Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea, some experts say these countries are still keen to ensure these differences won’t overshadow their overall relationships with Beijing.

China and Indonesia both “don’t want to dwell too much on territorial disputes in the South China Sea,” said Ngeow Chow-Bing, an associate professor in China studies at the University of Malaya.

He said most Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) countries, except the Philippines, believe that if they clearly express their concerns about territorial disputes to Beijing and ensure their interests are not violated, they can still try to collaborate with China on other issues.

“Most ASEAN countries and China are sticking to the normal conduct of relationships while searching for more opportunities to collaborate,” he told VOA.

At the same time, some ASEAN countries are building closer relations with the United States and its allies. Since last year, Vietnam has elevated bilateral ties with the U.S., Japan, and Australia.

In response, Beijing has said bloc confrontation goes against “the common aspiration of regional countries."

Before his trip to China, Vietnamese Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son met U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington, where they talked about issues including the peace and stability of the South China Sea.

Ngeow in Malaysia said many Southeast Asian countries are trying to play a balancing act between Beijing and democratic countries led by the U.S. “These countries all want to diversify their foreign relations but the expansion of relationships is not necessarily targeting China,” he told VOA.

However, Chong in Singapore said whether countries can “seek opportunities from all sides” remains questionable. “The intention will be to maximize benefits but there is the risk that these bets may not materialize unless they coordinate with each other,” he told VOA.

For its part, Beijing will focus on rolling out more projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — its flagship infrastructure project — that benefit relations with Southeast Asian nations and align with its interests.

“China will focus a lot of the ‘small and beautiful projects’ from the BRI in Southeast Asia, especially in terms of digital infrastructure,” Chong told VOA.

A new survey released by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute shows that when asked whether their country should align itself with the United States or China, 50.5% out of 1,994 respondents across 10 ASEAN countries chose China while 49.5% preferred the U.S.

Still, territorial disputes with the Philippines and other nations are likely to persist, and some observers say China may try to “score some rhetorical points” on the issue during its meetings with foreign ministers from the three Southeast Asian countries.

“China has done similar things in 2016, when it gathered representatives of Brunei, Cambodia, and Laos to issue an agreement, saying that territorial dispute in the South China Sea shouldn’t affect relations between China and ASEAN,” said Hunter Marston, an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University in Australia.

While it remains unclear how China may address the South China Sea disputes, Marston said initiating a diplomatic charm offensive “certainly helps.”