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China tells Southeast Asian states not to be pawns in big-power rivalries

The Chinese foreign minister urged ASEAN countries Monday against becoming pawns in rivalries between big powers, a day after his U.S. counterpart visited Bangkok as part of the Biden administration’s intense diplomacy to counter Beijing’s engagement in Southeast Asia.

In a speech in Jakarta, Wang Yi appeared to position Beijing as being on the side of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a stance that critics have questioned over frequent Chinese incursions into Asian claimant states’ waters in the disputed South China Sea.

“We should insulate this region from geopolitical calculations and the trap of the law of the jungle, from being used as chess pieces in major power rivalry, and from coercion by hegemony and bullying,” Wang said during his policy speech at the ASEAN Secretariat. 

“The future of our region should be in our own hands.”

Wang called on the region to reject attempts to divide it into “confrontational and exclusive groups,” an apparent reference to U.S.-led security initiatives such as the Quad and AUKUS.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, comprises the United States, Japan, Australia and India. AUKUS is a security pact under which the United States and Britain will help Canberra build nuclear-powered submarines.

“We should uphold true regional cooperation that unites countries within the region and remain open to countries outside, and reject the kind of fake regional cooperation that keeps a certain country out and targets certain side,” Wang said.

But, critics say, alleged incursions by Chinese vessels in the exclusive economic zones of Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia in the South China Sea have threatened stability in Southeast Asia.

China has never accepted a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that found Beijing’s expansive “historical claims” in the South China Sea to have no legal basis.

And for the Biden administration, Southeast Asia is a top priority, it has stressed time and again. It sees the area as crucial, and analysts said Washington scored a win in its efforts to counter Beijing’s influence by getting most members of the ASEAN bloc to join the new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity deal in May.

Now, Wang is on a tour of the region to promote China’s Global Development Initiative, and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

On Monday he described the former as a solution to “the global peace deficit and security dilemma.” BRI is an estimated $1 trillion-plus infrastructure initiative to build a network of railways, ports and bridges across 70 countries, which critics say has led many countries into a debt trap, a charge Beijing has hotly denied. 

Wang’s visit to Jakarta followed the G7 summit in Germany late last month, where leaders announced that their governments together would raise $600 billion funds over five years to finance infrastructure in developing nations to counter the BRI.

On Saturday, Blinken said that Washington was not asking others to choose between the United States and China, “but giving them a choice, when it comes to things like investment in infrastructure and development systems.”

“What we want to make sure is that we’re engaged in a race to the top, that we do things to the highest standards, not a race to the bottom where we do things to the lowest standards.”

While in Thailand, Blinken and his Thai counterpart, Don Pramudwinai, signed the U.S.-Thailand Communiqué on Strategic Alliance and Partnership on Sunday.

“Our countries share the same goals – the free, open, interconnected, prosperous, resilient and secure Indo-Pacific. In recent years, we worked together even more closely toward that vision,” Blinken said.

According to Agus Haryanto, an analyst at Jenderal Soedirman University in Purwokerto, China is concerned about U.S. reengagement with Southeast Asia after being perceived as lacking interest in the region during the years of the Trump administration (2017-2021).

“The United States under President Biden is paying attention again to Southeast Asia, including a focus on democracy issues in Myanmar and strengthening cooperation with Thailand,” Agus told BenarNews.  

China ‘supported Russia in the UN’

On Sunday, Blinken urged ASEAN members and China to push Myanmar’s junta to end violence against its people and move back toward democracy.

More than 2,065 civilians have been killed in Myanmar since the military overthrew the democratic government in February 2021, according to Thailand’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Blinken also accused China of supporting Russia in its invasion of Ukraine, despite Beijing’s professed neutrality.

“We are concerned about the PRC’s alignment with Russia,” Blinken told reporters after a meeting with Wang in Bali, where they had attended the G20 Foreign Ministers’ meeting.

“I don’t think that China is in fact engaging in a way that suggests neutrality. It’s supported Russia in the U.N. It continues to do so. It’s amplified Russian propaganda,” he said.

Meanwhile on Monday, Wang met with Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and praised Jakarta for its initiative to broker peace between Russia and Ukraine, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said.

“The PRC once again appreciates Indonesia’s various efforts to seek a peaceful settlement to ongoing situation in Ukraine, including specifically mentioning the President’s visits to Kyiv and Moscow,” Retno said in a statement released by Jokowi’s office.

Retno said Wang and Jokowi discussed “priority projects,” including the China-backed Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway, the country’s first, and part of the BRI projects.

In a statement following a meeting between with Indonesia’s most senior minister Luhut Pandjaitan on Saturday, Wang said Beijing and Jakarta agreed on building a community “with a shared future” and forging “a new pattern of bilateral cooperation” covering the political, economic, cultural and maritime sectors. 

“Indonesia supports and stands ready to actively participate in the Global Development Initiative and the Global Security Initiative, both put forward by President Xi Jinping,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

“China is ready to work with Indonesia to continue taking the lead in solidarity and cooperation among regional and developing countries, and forge an exemplary model of mutual benefit, win-win results and common development, as well as a vanguard of South-South cooperation, so as to make greater contributions to maintaining regional stability and promoting world peace,” it said.

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news service.