President Xi Jinping said on Monday that China will not seek “hegemony” or bully smaller countries as he announced USD 1.5 billion development assistance for the ASEAN besides the elevation of the ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership to strengthen security cooperation with the 10-nation bloc, amid the US push into the resource rich Indo-Pacific.
Xi made the remarks at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-China Special Summit to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations.
Addressing the summit via video link, President Xi reiterated that China “resolutely opposes hegemonism and power politics, wishes to maintain friendly relations with its neighbours and jointly nurture lasting peace in the region and absolutely will not seek hegemony or even less, bully the small”.
“As distance tests a horse’s strength, time reveals a person’s heart,” Xi said. “China was, is and will always be ASEAN’s good neighbour, good friend and good partner. I want to stress that China will unswervingly make ASEAN the priority of its neighbouring diplomacy.”
China, which was the first to establish a special relationship with the ASEAN countries Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, reaped big benefits as the trade with the bloc touched over USD 732 billion last year with Beijing emerging as its largest trading partner.
India, which shares a special relationship with the ASEAN countries, too held its India-ASEAN summit last month in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi said 2022 would be celebrated as the ‘ASEAN-India Friendship Year’ to mark 30 years of their partnership.
Addressing the summit, Xi announced the establishment of a comprehensive strategic partnership.
China has several categories to label its ties with different countries. The lowest is partnership, while the highest level is comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era which is specific to its ties with Russia, Beijing’s emerging close ally.
“This is a new milestone in the history of our relations and will inject new impetus into peace, stability, prosperity and development of our region and the world,” Xi said.
“China is ready to provide ASEAN with another USD 1.5 billion of development assistance in the next three years to support ASEAN countries” fight against COVID-19 and economic recovery,” he said.
China is ready to import more quality products from ASEAN countries, including buying up to USD 150 billion worth of agricultural products from ASEAN in the next five years, he said.
“We support the establishment of a China-ASEAN Knowledge Network for Development. China is also ready to strengthen exchange and cooperation with ASEAN on poverty reduction to promote balanced and inclusive development,” he said.
He also said that China is ready to donate an additional 150 million doses of COVID vaccines to ASEAN countries to support higher vaccination rates in countries in the region besides USD five million to the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund.
Xi said China would upgrade the free-trade zone with ASEAN that was established in 2011, and transfer more advanced technology.
In order to achieve more beneficial relations, Xi proposed close security cooperation with ASEAN countries, notwithstanding the South China Sea (SCS) dispute involving a number of ASEAN countries.
“In addressing these challenges, it is important to pursue common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security, and deepen cooperation in areas such as defence, counter-terrorism, joint maritime search, rescue and exercise, countering transnational crime, and disaster management,” Xi said.
He also said “joint efforts are needed to safeguard stability in the South China Sea and make it a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation”.
“We seek high-quality Belt and Road cooperation with ASEAN and cooperation between the Belt and Road Initiative and the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific,” he said.
China, while expressing its reservations on the Indo-Pacific concept, has also flagged concerns over US big push into the region as well as the formation of Quad alliance involving US, India, Japan and Australia besides AUKUS, the US, Australia and UK alliance. Beijing says these alliances were aimed at stifling its rise.
The US now joined by allies has stepped up naval and aerial patrols over the SCS to assert freedom of navigation, much to the chagrin of Beijing.
As it developed political and economic stakes in ASEAN, China in recent years forged closer strategic partnership with Cambodia and Laos, which critics say stifled chances of united push by the 10-member bloc to strike a more assertive posture against Beijing.
Significantly, the ASEAN countries resisted China’s efforts to rope in Myanmar’s military ruler General Min Aung Hlaing, whose regime faced serious allegations of human rights abuses, to attend the summit.
The virtual summit hosted by Xi was held without a representative from Myanmar despite hectic lobbying by Beijing to accommodate Hlaing. Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei reportedly opposed China’s proposal to include the Myanmar junta leader.
In a statement, Myanmar’s Ministry of Information thanked China for inviting its representative to attend the meeting and complaining that some members of the bloc had exerted pressure for a “non-political” representative to attend.
Commenting on the summit, Chen Xiangmiao, an associate researcher with the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said China and ASEAN had yet to establish a formal defence minister dialogue mechanism, and the two sides could work towards it.
“Security cooperation between China and ASEAN has not been sufficient over the years,” Chen told Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.
“There were some breakthroughs in 2018 when China and ASEAN held their first joint exercise, but there is still not a formal dialogue platform between their defence ministers.”
Chen said other cooperation could cover supply chains and infrastructure connectivity.
Xu Liping, an expert on Southeast Asia with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said both China and the US were aware of ASEAN’s importance. The US saw the region’s potential role in countering Beijing’s rising influence, while China aimed to dissuade ASEAN nations from siding with the US, he added.
“The region is important to both China and the US,” Xu said. “It is an important military and trade passage for the US.”
Chen said the US was aiming to use its military bases in ASEAN nations and apply diplomatic pressure on Beijing. “The US hopes to make ASEAN its partner, to rival China,” he told the Post.