Foreign ministers from 10 Southeast Asian nations, the United States and China are taking part in discussions this week on topics ranging from maritime sovereignty to post-COVID economic recovery that Asia scholars say will test the resolve of both the United States and China.
China and the United States have assigned officials to the videoconference events Wednesday through Friday, with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo representing Washington at a ministerial meeting held by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) negotiating bloc. Chinese officials are due to appear at other foreign minister-level events this week.
Ten foreign ministers from the 650 million-population Southeast Asian region, which is of growing economic and political importance to both powers, will largely welcome strong U.S. political or military support against threats from China — but at the same time look more to China for economic aid including post-pandemic recovery, analysts believe.
“I think Southeast Asia will look to get a better sense of whether they can trust Washington’s commitment to prioritizing their region and what they can actually count on the U.S. for, and not, when contending with China,” said Derek Grossman, senior analyst with the Rand Corp. research institution in the United States.
Southeast Asian ministers are waiting for more substance on Pompeo’s statements in July that the U.S. government would defend countries pressured by China over maritime sovereignty disputes, the scholars say.
Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines — all militarily weaker than China — resent Beijing for letting Chinese ships pass through areas they claim in the disputed South China Sea.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Commerce ordered sanctions against 24 Chinese companies that have helped China build islets in the sea.
The U.S. Navy regularly sends ships to the sea to assert freedom of navigation in defiance of Chinese claims to almost the entire sea.
China’s island-building spree through 2017, followed by more assertive military maneuvers, has put the Southeast Asian claimants on guard in the waterway that’s prized for fisheries and energy reserves. Washington has no claim in the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea but believes the sea should be open internationally, U.S. officials have said.
Pompeo was due Wednesday to “address U.S. priorities in the Indo-Pacific and share details on our efforts to support a free and open region based on principles of sovereignty and pluralism,” the Department of State told reporters by e-mail September 3.
“How receptive they are to a tougher U.S. line is going to say something about how receptive they are going to be to Chinese outreach,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative under the Center for Strategic and International Studies research organization in Washington.
China is expected to offer economic support rather than sound upbeat about the maritime dispute, analysts say. It’s unlikely to revive talks about a South China Sea code of conduct, for example, as that idea for avoiding mishaps has been off the table for half a year and Vietnam is angry over maritime incidents with China earlier in the year, Poling said.
Southeast Asian leaders further wonder whether China fumbled its initial COVID-19 response, said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. They’re wary of instability in Hong Kong, too, he said.
But he said they’re listening for any hint of a trade initiative or proposals for “travel bubbles” that would allow free flow of tourists between countries with low COVID-19 rates. Most Asian countries allow little inbound travel to stop the coronavirus spread.
The Chinese ambassador to ASEAN said in May that a two-year, $2 billion commitment of international anti-pandemic aid would include Southeast Asia.
“Chinese leadership is the only one that you can seriously expect any major initiatives from, but even then, one cannot expect completely obedient followership from the rest of the East Asia Summit because there are reservations about Chinese intentions,” Chong said.
Southeast Asian states in the long term will pursue stronger ties with both superpowers, as openly taking sides would risk isolating one while favoring the other, scholars say. China and the United States are embroiled in a wide-ranging dispute over trade, internet controls, technology transfers and each side’s diplomatic activity in the other country.
“We can be sure that ASEAN will strike a tone that emphasizes cooperation while skirting the Sino-U.S. issues as much as possible,” said Collin Koh, a maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Malaysia, for example, sells its agricultural staple, palm oil, to China. The Chinese capital has helped build infrastructure in Malaysia as well.
“We are not in China’s camp, but we don’t want to be seen to be provocative either,” said Shahriman Lockman, senior foreign policy and security studies analyst with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies research organization in Kuala Lumpur.