Chinese President Xi Jinping’s appearance at a special summit with ASEAN leaders on Monday underscored the importance placed on a region that has functioned as a shock absorber between great powers.
The summit, commemorating the 30th anniversary of dialogue between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, was convened at the request of Beijing. Xi served as summit chair, a role that customarily would be filled by Premier Li Keqiang.
The ASEAN relationship will be upgraded to a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” Xi announced.
On the South China Sea, where China has conflicting territorial claims with four ASEAN nations including Vietnam and the Philippines, Xi said that joint efforts would be needed to make it “a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.” China and ASEAN reaffirmed that they would seek an early conclusion to talks on a legally binding code of conduct in the South China Sea to prevent conflicts.
ASEAN, originally established as a bulwark against communism, opened dialogue with China in 1991 as the Cold War ended. Making progress on its own economic reforms, China helped ASEAN return to the path of growth following the 1997 Asian currency crisis. China has also helped to underpin the region’s economy through free trade agreements and the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.
However, ASEAN is increasingly wary of China’s aggressive maritime expansion in recent years. And the risks of becoming overly reliant on China were laid bare when Australia faced economic retaliation for seeking an investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus.
China calls for the rule of law with a code of conduct. Yet it has ignored an international tribunal’s ruling that rejected Beijing’s maritime claims to much of the South China Sea, steadily strengthening its de facto control by force. If seeking regional peace and stability is the goal, China should reassess its inconsistent foreign policy stance instead of brandishing its might.
The U.S. has stepped up its position against China on the economic and military fronts, establishing the Quad security partnership with Japan, Australia and India, as well as the AUKUS pact with the U.K. and Australia.
The Group of Seven rich nations will invite ASEAN members for the first time to their foreign ministers’ meeting in December. The G-7 would do well to reaffirm efforts to cooperate with ASEAN and keep China at bay in the region.