In early September, China hosted the 10th China-ASEAN Expo in southern Chinese city of Nanning. There, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang glowingly characterized the last ten years as a “golden decade” of growing economic ties between China and the countries of Southeast Asia, all of which are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). He now foresaw that the next decade would be even better—a “diamond decade.”
Together with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visits to Indonesia and Malaysia and his high-level meetings at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum that would soon follow, Li’s remarks appeared to mark the start of a new charm offensive in Southeast Asia. China’s last charm offensive, despite Li’s depiction of a “golden decade,” had sputtered out at the end of that decade, overshadowed by China’s growing economic and political assertiveness on land and at sea. Although China’s disputes with its maritime neighbors have drawn more attention, China also managed to irritate its neighbors across Indochina. Its state-owned companies operating in the region have often been high-handed. Their cavalier attitude towards displacing communities and destroying cultural relics contributed to Myanmar’s decision to halt the construction of the Myitsone dam in 2011—the first time any Southeast Asian country blocked a major Chinese-sponsored infrastructure project. Meanwhile, China’s unrestrained hydroelectric development on its upstream stretch of the Mekong River has worried many downstream communities in Southeast Asia, even though their governments seldom voice their concerns.
Worse for China’s image is its maritime disputes with Southeast Asia, which were put under an international spotlight in 2010 when several ASEAN countries confronted China about its behavior in the South China Sea at the 17th ASEAN Regional Forum. Regional concerns over Chinese intentions were further stoked by China’s increased interference of Vietnamese oil exploration ship; its months-long standoff with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal in the spring of 2012; and its escalatory attitude toward Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands since September of that year. Finally, many believed that Chinese pressure directly contributed to rifts in ASEAN itself, when the 2012 ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting failed to produce any progress on a multilateral code of conduct for the South China Sea or even issue a closing joint communiqué that mentioned one. Surely such rising concerns have led the Philippines and Vietnam to accelerate the pace of their military buildups.
However, many Chinese believe they see the hand of the United States in China’s recently contentious relations with Southeast Asia. They see American policy as either creating the environment that has allowed Southeast Asian countries to resist China’s interests or directly encouraging those countries to resist them. In either case, they see the flare up of disagreements between China and its ASEAN neighbors as evidence of a larger American effort to contain China’s rise. Hence, Beijing may believe that initiating a new charm offensive could not only capitalize on Southeast Asia’s continued view of China as a source of economic growth, but also diminish the effect of that American effort. Whether Beijing’s new tack is momentary or longer lasting is too early to tell.
Yet China has already met with some success, perhaps enhanced as a result of President Barack Obama’s absence from the APEC meetings. While it was not the first time an American president was absent, Obama’s absence came at a time when many Southeast Asians were looking for reassurance of American commitment. At the very least, it allowed Xi to become the center of attention. And Xi brought China’s “diamond decade” message with him. He pointed out several areas of opportunity: upgrading China’s free-trade agreement with ASEAN, improving communications between China and Southeast Asian countries, strengthening financial cooperation across borders, developing maritime cooperation, and enhancing Chinese cultural exchanges with Southeast Asia.
Even before the APEC meetings, Xi visited Malaysia and Indonesia. He heralded the advent of “strategic cooperative relationships” with those countries and was the first foreign leader to address the Indonesian parliament. Then after the APEC meetings, Li arrived in Southeast Asia to continue China’s diplomatic efforts in Brunei, Thailand, and Vietnam. In Brunei, Li discussed joint energy development. In Thailand, he championed plans for a high-speed railway project connecting China to Singapore that has lain dormant for many years. And in Vietnam—a country that has its share of maritime disputes with China—Li and his Vietnamese counterparts announced that the two countries would set up a joint maritime development working committee to ease the tensions in the South China Sea.
For their part, ASEAN countries seem to have responded positively (and possibly opportunistically). Malaysia—perhaps sensing that the Philippines has, for the moment, halted China’s broader assertiveness in the South China Sea—may now view Chinese overtures as a chance to boost its own economy. And while Thailand still sees the high-speed railway project as too expensive for it to undertake alone, it has encouraged China to contribute to the financing.
However, the one country in the region that China has not courted is the Philippines. Instead, China seemed to go out of its way to isolate it. Indeed, it is a strategy that some Chinese foreign policy scholars have advocated. As if to underline the point, after China issued invitations to all the heads of state in Southeast Asia to attend the China-ASEAN Expo, it rescinded its invitation to Philippine President Benigno Aquino III. And so, the Philippines was the only ASEAN country not represented at the event. And so, even as China seeks to emphasize its kinder, gentler side, its steely side remains. Relations between China and Southeast Asia may yet improve during the “diamond decade,” but mostly on Chinese terms.