China Bids for Friends in Southeast Asia as US Influence Grows


TAIPEI – China is showing new interest in working with Southeast Asian countries in the disputed resource-rich South China Sea as its superpower rival, the United States, gains diplomatic momentum under President Joe Biden, analysts in Asia say.

China, with Asia’s biggest military and economy, hosted a rare, in-person meeting June 7-8, bringing the foreign ministers of 10 Southeast Asian countries together with their Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi.

Wang and ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations said in a June 9 statement from their meeting in the Chinese city Chongqing they had discussed the pursuit of “peaceful resolution of disputes” in the South China Sea and a resumption of talks toward “early conclusion of an effective and substantive code of conduct.”

Final signatures on the code of conduct — a document that would spell out ways of avoiding mishaps at sea without touching a sovereignty dispute involving six governments — will probably miss a 2021 goal because of its complexity and dearth of related discussions during the pandemic, observers say.

At this month’s meeting, China mainly wanted to get Southeast Asian governments on its side and pull them away from the United States, according to experts.

“This will be a way for China to try to shore up its defenses, shall we say, against a resurgence of pro-Western influence,” said Jay Batongbacal, international maritime affairs professor at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City.

China claims about 90% of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea that is prized for fisheries and fossil fuel reserves. ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam call parts of the sea their own, overlapping the Chinese boundary line, and Taiwan claims most of the same waterway.