Threats or inducements in dealing with China?

The day after US State Secretary Mike Pompeo announced he’ll be visiting India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia this month to try and keep the Indian Ocean nations on side, his rival for the region’s attention ,China, was making its pitch courtesy of an Indonesian think tank. The approaches were remarkably unalike – one a clenched fist, the other an apparently open hand.

In Jakarta the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia invited two Chinese ASEAN diplomats, Dr Hoang Anh Tuan and Deng Xijun, to a webinar launch of its ASEAN-China Survey Assessing the Present and Envisioning the Future of ASEAN- China Relations.

A thousand respondents across Southeast Asia were split into two groups – the ’elite’ (academics, government officials, civil society and business), and students. The form-fillers were ‘cautiously optimistic’ wanting ASEAN ‘centrality’ to be preserved – which appears to mean ‘sovereignty’. ‘It is important to ensure that all players … respect the game in town and not try to replace it with a power-based (dis)order.’

Also commemorating the 70th anniversary of Indonesia-China bilateral relations, the FPCI and the Embassy are running a video competition on the theme of Tell Your China Stories.

All warm and fuzzy, and far from Pompeo’s approach. His five-day trip comes after meeting ministers from Japan, Australia and India in Tokyo where he spoke of building barriers against Chinese territorial ambition in the South China Sea.

The heads down will ‘include discussions on how free nations can work together to thwart threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party’. (This phrase is a Pompeo favourite.)

Just ahead of Pompeo came Japan’s Yoshihide Suga. The Nippon’s new leaders usually pay their respects first to Washington, but the PM headed for Indonesia. He wasn’t flexing muscle but offering a 50 billion yen (AUD 670 million) low-interest loan to help handle the Covid-19 crisis.

Reuters recently reported that Indonesia had rejected US requests for landing and re-fuelling rights for its surveillance planes which monitor Chinese military activity in the South China Sea. Jakarta hasn’t commented presumably to keep the conversation cool and not antagonise its major investor and trading partner worth around AUD 911 billion dollars annually.

Before the launch of its report, FPCI founder and former US Ambassador to the US Dr Dino Patti Djalal wrote that ‘in Southeast Asia, the Trump administration’s anti-China advocacy is not likely to find a receptive audience.

‘…no Southeast Asian government has responded to – let alone applauded – the Trump administration’s call to oppose or isolate China.’

Djalal suggested several reasons for the indifference – starting with the need to first win the Covid-19 war. Here China has been smart. If a vaccine becomes available it has promised Indonesia 40 million doses showing itself as a ‘solution provider’.

The deal involves state-owned companies and governments in both countries. So far there’s been no similar pact with the US.

Towards the end of the 75-minute FPCI love-in webinar, participants started tickling the edges of the real issue – Beijing’s ‘nine-dash line’ claim to the South China Sea. This overlaps the economic zones of five of ASEAN’s ten members – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei.

They also raised ASEAN’s call for more negotiations for a Code of Conduct for the region – an idea that’s been off and on for years. Talks may resume next month, though a cynic in another forum said the two sides would not be negotiating but discussing how to resume the negotiations.

In 2018, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the COC would be finalized within three years. That’s a target unlikely to be met, according to Viet Hoang, a lecturer at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Law. He’s also a visiting scholar at the University of Taiwan, so his remarks will most likely be flicked aside by the Chinese. Writing in The Diplomat he said:

‘Fundamentally, the situation is simple: ASEAN countries want to curb China’s behaviour, but China does not want its actions to be constrained. ASEAN has little or nothing that it can do to force China to agree on an effective and substantial COC, so the negotiations have continued to deadlock on key issues.

‘China has always wanted to exclude the US and other countries from the COC negotiation process. For example, China wants all signatories to be able to veto naval exercises with any non-signatory, but this is unacceptable to ASEAN countries that rely on relations with external powers to counterbalance China’s growing power. With so many fundamental issues in play, the COC process is not likely to end any time in the near future.’

It’s worth remembering that for the ASEAN countries China is not some distant power far away, but a close neighbour with ancient historical ties that few in the current US administration would appreciate. The total population of the ASEAN states is 647 million, about half China’s.

Said Djalal: ‘Southeast Asians understand that with economic engagement comes some measure of political influence, but they also experienced the same thing with the US, and they (or some of them) know how to handle it.

‘To expect Southeast Asian governments to commit to a blanket opposition to China under these circumstances is totally unrealistic.

The US … should project itself as a benign, unselfish superpower supportive of the development needs of the countries in the region. It should be less patronizing, and less judgmental … project confidence rather than insecurity.

‘It should ease up on this presently obsessive ideological crusade. It should focus more on soft power than hard power…Today, Southeast Asians want to get along with the US and China, but they also want the US and China to get along, at least in their region. Is that too much to ask?’

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Duncan Graham has been a journalist for more than 40 years in print, radio and TV. He is the author of People Next Door (UWA Press) and winner of the Walkley Award and Human Rights awards. He is now writing for the English language media in Indonesia from within Indonesia.

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