On its face, the Chinese government’s proposal that China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should update their strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership, made at the 26th ASEAN-China Senior Officials’ Consultation in July last year, seems both timely and appealing.
First, 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations and thus offers a good opportunity to raise ASEAN-China ties to the next level. Second, ASEAN has been – and remains – of great strategic importance to China. ASEAN was China’s largest trading partner in 2020, and both sides were among the signatories of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade pact that was formalized in November. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s four-nation Southeast Asian tour earlier this month, coming after a similar regional tour in October, suggests that ASEAN will be a special focus of China’s 2021 diplomacy.
However, China’s quest to add the important word “comprehensive” to its strategic relationship with ASEAN is not as promising as it seems. China and the South China Sea claimant states – Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia – continue to lock horns over China’s militarization of artificial land features in the disputed seaway.
Beijing’s use of pressure and intimidation to undermine the sovereign rights of smaller littoral states has been a persistent source of mistrust between China and ASEAN countries. A handful of tense stand-offs between China and maritime claimants have raised concerns among ASEAN nations about China’s ambition of treating the South China Sea as its own virtual internal lake. In 2020, the South China Sea was roiled by China’s aggressive behavior, driving Southeast Asian claimant states Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, along with outside powers like the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia to release statements calling for states to respect and uphold the international rule of law. Movement toward a China-ASEAN comprehensive strategic partnership may end in deadlock should China once again become more assertive in contested waters.
Additionally, the progress – or possible lack thereof – on the long-awaited South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC) may affect China’s outreach to ASEAN. Though the COC was pushed by Vietnam during its chairmanship, the current ASEAN chair may not be as committed as Vietnam to resolving the South China Sea issues. Brunei’s commitment to ASEAN remains in doubt as the sultanate – the “silent claimant” in the South China Sea – may not be willing to incur economic costs by angering the Chinese government. China has successfully bought Brunei’s silence on the disputed waters due to the tiny sultanate state’s dependence on Chinese investments and infrastructure projects to buoy up its declining economy. Brunei’s reaching out to China in September 2020 to push forward the establishment of a strategic cooperative partnership, especially on military exchanges, was a demonstration of the strengthening ties between the two countries.
Another reason for ASEAN’s studied reticence in embracing China’s idea has to do with the latter’s reading of the so-called “comprehensive” nature of the strategic partnership. Does “comprehensive” mean cooperation in all dimensions of the China-ASEAN relationship? Can the term be perceived or decoded as close ties from all sides of the partnership? Or is it a showcase of “China first” in the China-ASEAN policy framework, implying the exclusion of Washington? These issues, among others, are each liable to invoke contentious arguments if not clarified. However, ASEAN has not yet received China’s further clarifications on “the real meaning and substance” of the comprehensive notion of the ASEAN-China strategic partnership. For ASEAN’s part, China’s submission should be supplemented with essential elucidation of what exactly China means by a “comprehensive” strategic partnership.
Should it eventuate, a major upgrade of the China-ASEAN partnership would require a nuanced reaction from the incoming Biden administration. Biden’s approach to Southeast Asia, amid the broader U.S.-China rivalry, might include taking the necessary steps to reinforce American ties with the Southeast Asian bloc. Biden’s senior advisor and incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it thusly in August 2020: “President Biden will show up and engage ASEAN on critical issues of common interest.”
As such, any move by ASEAN toward China would might imply to the U.S. a sort of balancing act against Washington. Worse, ASEAN’s adoption of China’s suggestion could be read by the U.S. government as a tilt toward the regional giant. For a regional institution like ASEAN, pursuing a hedging approach vis-à-vis a rising China and a hegemonic America is unlikely to be sustainable if ASEAN leans, or is perceived to lean, too much to one side. As for ASEAN’s hedging perseverance, embracing a comprehensive strategic partnership with China right after the coming of the American new administration is far from a wise decision.
For ASEAN’s global strategic partners, the elevation of the ASEAN-China partnership to comprehensive strategic level may generate a more competitive tendency. Since 1977, the strategy of engaging proactively with the outside world has benefited the grouping as it positioned ASEAN at the hub of regional settings. ASEAN has already established strategic partnerships with major movers and shakers: China (2003), Japan (2005), South Korea (2010), India (2012), Australia (2014), New Zealand (2015), the United States (2015), Russia (2018), and the European Union (2020). Last September, ASEAN and Canada also agreed to lift their dialogue relationship to a strategic partnership. Maintaining ASEAN’s relationship with these strategic partners has helped to uphold “ASEAN centrality” in the region and to buttress ASEAN multilateralism. Elevating the ASEAN-China partnership to a much higher level, amid China’s tensions with the United States’ allies and partners, would likely raise eyebrows among these middle powers and even potentially harm ASEAN’s relations with its like-minded strategic partners.
ASEAN’s navigation of Sino-American competition in Southeast Asia is now being put to the test, with the comprehensive strategic partnership put forward by China here acting something like the fabled sword of Damocles. At the 23rd ASEAN-China Summit held via video conference in November, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang continued to press ASEAN states to elevate China-ASEAN relationship to a higher level and promised that “China will stand in solidarity with ASEAN countries to address the difficulties head on. Together, we will usher in even brighter prospects for the China-ASEAN strategic partnership and contribute even more to peace, stability, development, and prosperity of the region.”
However, ASEAN’s experience with China with regard to the South China Sea issue, Biden’s questionable commitment to Southeast Asia, the possible dubious response from ASEAN’s other strategic partners, and the equivocal meaning of “comprehensive” in China’s submission all contribute to ASEAN’s likely caution in embracing an expansion of the ASEAN-China strategic partnership. As ASEAN chair in 2020, Vietnam responded by stating that ASEAN “agreed to undertake consultations on the proposed establishment of a comprehensive strategic partnership between ASEAN and China.” While the roundtable discussion among ASEAN member states on China’s submission remains to be seen, one thing seems certain: ASEAN’s embrace of China’s suggestion has never been undemanding, all the more so when it is hard to make explicit predictions on the U.S.-China relationship in the era of COVID-19.
In a nutshell, it remains uncertain that a comprehensive strategic partnership between China and the grouping is within reach in 2021, even though this year appears at first glance to represent an appropriate occasion for the deepening of China-ASEAN ties. The above mentioned hurdles mentioned may hinder China’s efforts in this regard, despite Wang Yi’s charm offensive earlier this month. ASEAN may well embrace a “wait and see” attitude – a tactically risk averse move, given the ongoing U.S.-China competition – while keeping a watchful eye on the possible trajectories of President Biden’s China policy.
Huynh Tam Sang is a lecturer of the faculty of international relations and research fellow of the Center for International Studies at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City.