Beijing courts Southeast Asian nations in bid to counter South China Sea backlash

Maria Siow
·6-min read

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will meet his Southeast Asian counterparts this week, stepping up Beijing’s attempts to engage with the region and counter growing criticism over its activities in the South China Sea.

Sources said in addition to meeting with four Southeast Asian foreign ministers, Wang will also have talks with his South Korean counterparts in Fujian province.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said on Tuesday that Singapore’s Vivian Balakrishnan, Indonesia’s Retno Marsudi and Teddy Locsin from the Philippines would visit China from Wednesday to Friday. It is understood Malaysia’s Hishammuddin Hussein visit is scheduled from Thursday to Saturday.

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A statement by Singapore’s foreign affairs ministry said Balakrishnan will visit Fujian on Tuesday and Wednesday. The visit “reaffirms the long-standing and substantive relations between Singapore and China, as both countries cooperate to strengthen economic recovery following the Covid-19 pandemic,” it said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping wrapped up a four-day trip to Fujian last week, the first after China’s top legislature approved the country’s next five-year plan, a core part of which is self-sufficiency in technology. Xi visited Nanping, Sanming and Fuzhou, the provincial capital.

Meanwhile, the US has been seeking to rally its allies and Washington has been joined by Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines in speaking out over China’s activities in the South China Sea.

Aaron Jed Rabena, a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress, a Manila-based think tank, said the planned meeting could be an attempt by China “to engage and reassure regional countries amid greater political and diplomatic coordination among Quad and Western countries”.

Earlier this month, US President Joe Biden hosted a virtual summit with the leaders of the other members of the Quad – Japan, India and Australia – the first meeting of its kind.

Wang Yi is expected to welcome Southeast Asian foreign ministers to Fujian province. Photo: Reuters
Wang Yi is expected to welcome Southeast Asian foreign ministers to Fujian province. Photo: Reuters

On Monday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US “stands with our ally, the Philippines” after Manila said it would deploy aircraft to Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands to monitor the 200 or so Chinese vessels that have gathered in the disputed waters.

Manila and Washington have described the ships as part of a Chinese “maritime militia”, but Beijing insists they are fishing boats.

The previous day, the Japanese and Indonesian defence ministers agreed to send a message that their two countries would strongly oppose any action by China that could escalate tensions in the contested waters. According to Japan’s defence minister Nobuo Kishi, this will include a joint exercise in the South China Sea.

“I think Wang Yi would reassure [the foreign ministers] in the meeting that the introduction of the law does not target any country and is not intended to provoke conflicts. I think he will also reiterate China’s consistent position in the South China Sea: set aside disputes and pursue joint development,” said Yu Zhirong, deputy secretary general of the Pacific Society of China, a think tank.

South China Sea: US, Japan and Indonesia ramp up pressure on Beijing

“He will call on countries in the region not to be influenced by countries outside the region and push forward Maritime Silk Road cooperation”.

Japan and the US also expressed serious concerns about the coastguard law when Blinken visited Tokyo in mid-March, adding that they objected to Beijing’s “unlawful” claims in the South China Sea.

Vannarith Chheang, a visiting fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute said the foreign ministers’ meeting was likely to discuss topics such as cooperation on Covid-19 and post-pandemic recovery, the unfolding political crisis in Myanmar and tensions on the Korean peninsula after the North’s recent missile launch. Chheang added that the US “strategic encirclement of China” was also likely to feature.

The Biden administration has been working to build a common front with its allies against Beijing and last week saw coordinated sanctions from the US, Canada, Britain and the European Union on Chinese officials accused of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Collin Koh, a research fellow from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said that while the White House was trying to reinvigorate US alliances, Southeast Asian countries would remain wary of being sucked into the vortex of Sino-US rivalry and try not to become too closely aligned to either side.

“While Biden’s recent reassurances could be taken positively in the respective capitals in Southeast Asia, and to be sure, US military, economic and diplomatic presence would be welcomed as a counterweight against China, especially in the South China Sea, there are still clear limits to the alliance systems. Clearly the Philippines, while holding on to its alliance with the US as its trump card in the pocket, isn’t simply relying just on that,” he said, referring to Manila’s efforts to improve relations with Beijing.

Philippine fighter jet flies over Chinese boats in South China Sea

“Regional countries such as the case of Indonesia are also wary of the complexities and hence we saw its cultivating of closer security ties with others such as Japan,” he said.

But Koh said it was not a comfortable situation for Beijing, adding: “The inclusion of other external powers, who have close security links with the US, contributes to a sum of countervailing bilateral approaches against China.”

Fujian has deep connections with several Southeast Asian countries as a major source of migrants to overseas Chinese communities.

Even though large numbers of Chinese began emigrating to Southeast Asia in search of opportunities and better livelihoods as early as the late 1700s, most of those who settled in Southeast Asia left in the mid-19th century.

This came after a number of treaty ports were opened in China with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 after the first Opium War, where many left from the British treaty ports of Xiamen (Amoy) and Fuzhou (Foochow).

Other waves of Fujian immigrants to Southeast Asia followed after famines and floods in 1910, and later during World War II and the early days of Communist rule which began in 1949.

In recent decades, many Fujian descendants in the region have not only contributed funds to help local communities build schools and ancestral halls, they have also returned to Fujian to search for remaining relatives and check out their ancestral lineages.

Additional reporting by Rachel Zhang and Kinling Lo

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