Relations with Asean are China’s priority, says foreign minister as US also courts Southeast Asia

Foreign Minister Wang Yi said ties with Southeast Asia were a priority for China and called for “multilateralism with Asian characteristics”, as the country seeks to counter US moves in the region.

Wang said Beijing’s relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was the “most successful and active” in the region, during a virtual symposium on Wednesday marking 30 years of dialogue between China and Asean.

“China has always made Asean its priority for diplomacy in the region ... and firmly supports Asean’s central role in regional cooperation,” Wang said, according to the Chinese foreign ministry readout on Thursday. “Both sides should conduct frequent communication on all levels, and continue with mutual understanding and support for each other’s core interests.”

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Wang also urged the two sides to adopt what he called “multilateralism with Asian characteristics” as well as an open and inclusive regional cooperation mechanism that he said would contribute to building a more “just, peaceful and safe world”.

The meeting was held in parallel with US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin’s Southeast Asia visit, which included stops in the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. Austin said the tour was to “deepen America’s bonds with the allies and partners on whom our common security depends”.

China wants to ‘seize control’ of multilateral organisations: UK report

China has repeatedly urged the United States and its allies to adopt multilateralism rather than what it describes as “small groupings” disguised as multilateralism, while the US under President Joe Biden has sought to boost alliances to counter Beijing, including with the Group of Seven and the Quad.

Beijing has also stressed the need to build a “more just” and “inclusive” global order, according to the foreign ministry’s rhetoric – an order China views as tilted towards Western democracies.

On future relations with Asean, Wang called for more cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative and on the pandemic, and he also pushed for more talks on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, which has long been a sticking point in relations. The overlapping claims of China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei in the resource-rich waterway have remained unresolved for decades. China has been trying to push forward an agreement on a code of conduct but no significant progress has been made since a first reading of the “draft negotiating text” in July 2019, partly because it has been harder to hold face-to-face talks during the pandemic.

Beijing will not engage in intense ideological war with the US: expert

But wariness over China’s growing assertiveness in the region has also made rival claimants such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia “less willing” to push forward negotiations, according to Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, a think tank in Hainan.

In a meeting with his Asean counterparts in June, Wang called for the relationship to be upgraded to that of a comprehensive strategic partnership – which China has already established with some member states – but so far there has been no upgrade.

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