As the G20 summit opens in Osaka, Japan on Friday under the shadow of the debilitating U.S.-China trade war, signals from other parts of the world should give Beijing’s mandarins time to pause and rethink their strategy of using a mix of muscle and money to push through their strategic goals.
The latest signal is from Tanzania, which has cancelled the $10 bn China-funded Bagmoyo port project citing onerous financial conditions. But more significant is hyper-cautious ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) signalling its discomfort with China in an official document on the Indo-Pacific, its first articulation of that concept.
The document says it “envisages ASEAN centrality as the underlying principle for promoting cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region with ASEAN-led mechanisms such as the East Asian Summit (EAS)…”.
Nothing new there since this is what ASEAN has said in the past. But then it goes on to cite phrases Beijing is known to be uncomfortable with: rules-based framework, for instance, respect for sovereignty and non-intervention. It urges “respect for international law such as the UN Charter, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea”, all of which Beijing has brazenly flouted given its maritime disputes with South China Sea neighbours Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
The document notes: “The existing and arising geopolitical challenges in the region also revolve around maritime issues such as unresolved maritime disputes that have the potential for open conflict.” It urges maritime cooperation “for peaceful settlement of disputes; promoting maritime safety and security and freedom of navigation and overflight”.
ASEAN diplomats insist the document balances the competing interests of the major powers while upholding “ASEAN Centrality”. But ASEAN media reports said the U.S. and China worked behind the scenes to protect their interests and the final document is seen to have a “U.S. tilt” despite China’s best efforts. China, it’s learnt, had prevailed upon Cambodia to insert the phrase “there will be no foreign interference” in the affairs of ASEAN and had also reportedly put pressure on the Singaporeans to back it. But the phrase was eventually dropped which clearly would not have pleased Beijing.
India has welcomed the ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific document. The Ministry of External Affairs said: ‘While we are studying the ASEAN perspective closely, we see important element of convergence with our views, especially from the standpoint of principles as well as its approach and ASEAN’s listing of areas of cooperation. We look forward to exchanging views on the Indo-Pacific with our partners.”
The MEA was particularly pleased with the ASEAN document mentioning the BIMSTEC grouping (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal) having synergies with its own vision of the Indo-Pacific.
ASEAN’s balancing act may not be that balanced but it underscores another fact: ASEAN can’t live with China and cannot live without China. The region is heavily dependent on the China trade and the investments in brings in and ASEAN is primarily an economic grouping. It has traditionally avoided getting embroiled in political and security issues since it is divided internally (Cambodia and Laos are seen as Beijing’s close allies). In that sense the Indo-Pacific document could be a first, but it is only a signal to China, at the end of the day ASEAN would be hoping that China will moderate its behaviour so the good times can continue.