When the veteran diplomat, Wang Yi, was appointed the new foreign minister of China recently, there was a sigh of relief within Asean.
His name immediately brought back the good old memories from those who worked closely with Wang, as a senior official, looking after Asia from 1994-2004. When he took over as the deputy chief of Asian Affairs Department in 1994, Asean-China relations were in a shambles and lacked mutual trust due to the dispute in South China Sea over Mischief Reef in early 1995. Their ties plummeted further after Asean jointly deplored China's action in March of that year.
It took a while for Asean to rebuild friendship with China. Beijing's opportunity came during the Asian financial crisis, which began in Thailand and spread to South Korea and Indonesia. With a strong promise not to devalue its currency together with modest financial assistance packages, China has since won friends in Asean and gained stronger economic and political footholds in the region.
Before the current Asean-China tension, there was a high level of goodwill and mutual trust between Asean and China that promoted and deepened their cooperation especially under the various frameworks of Asean Plus Three including the recent concluded the Asean Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Today, China has a total of 43 committees with Asean — the largest number - covering the whole gamut of engagement and cooperation. In contrast, the US has only 33, while India has 23 committees to oversee their cooperation with Asean.
Now, with the new Chinese leaders in place, Beijing's ambivalence during the transition period should be done away. With Wang Yi at the helm, Asean hopes the overall tension with China will subside. In the near future, Asean also wishes that China-Japan relations will improve, as they directly impact on the economic progress and integration in this region. The ambitious Asean Community would never become a reality if the two Asian giants are not on good terms. Indeed, stable and friendly China-Japan relations are a prerequisite for Asean enjoying continued prosperity.
At this juncture, with his diplomatic finesse and discreet negotiating style, Wang seems to be the right person at the right time to push the Asean-China as well as China-Japan ties forward to another level. He was also instrumental in shaping Asean-China relations during the crucial post-Mischief Reef period. An important outcome was the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. As an envoy to Japan during 2004-2007, he helped to improve ties with Tokyo. Before he took over the current position, he served for five years as director of Taiwan Affairs. Relations across the Taiwan Straits have never been better.
Senior officials from Asean and China are scheduled to meet in Beijing on April 2, to consult and discuss overall relations. They may have a chance to pay a courtesy call on the new foreign minister. Although the South China Sea is not on the agenda, both sides are expected to discuss this sensitive issue. A senior Thai official, who is attending the Beijing meeting, has expressed optimism that it would lay the future groundwork for both sides to begin the much awaited process of drafting the code of conduct in the South China Sea. Thailand is the coordinating country for Asean-China relations. Brunei, the Asean chair, has also made clear that one of its top priorities is to reduce the Asean-China tension over the maritime disputes.
Obviously the outcome in Beijing next month will serve as a barometer of China's attitude toward Asean under the new leadership of President Xi Jinping. Wang will work closely with his predecessor Yang Jiechi, who has been promoted to State Councillor responsible for foreign affairs. Together they are considered a foreign policy "dream team" with Yang, who is knowledgeable about the US, focusing on the West, while Wang, who can speak Japanese and is an old Asean hand, is focused on Asia. It is interesting to note that while there is an air of excitement over Wang's appointment in Asean, the newly appointed US State Secretary John Kerry does not stir up any curiosity even though he is a Vietnam veteran. But he has made waves in Europe and the Middle East.
Following the abrupt transformation of Asean-China relations since July 2010 after 15 years of cooperative partnership, China has stepped up its human resources working on Asean, both in Beijing and the Jakarta-based diplomatic mission. With uncertainties lurking ahead over the South China Sea dispute, improving ties with Asean has now become the Middle Kingdom's most urgent foreign policy objective. For decades, China's relations with Asean have been used as an example of how a big and powerful country can coexist with smaller neighbours. Throughout the past three decades of China's modernisation, peaceful coexistence with Southeast Asia has been highlighted as one of China's major foreign policy triumphs. It is incumbent on China to prove that is still valid these days.
By comparison, China has more confidence in handling ties with the US and Japan even though at times they could be very tense and being near the brink of war with the latter over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island dispute. Before the Asean enlargement in 1995, it was easier for China to treat Asean as a group—at the very least there were some like-mindedness. The case in point was China's unwavering support of Asean during the Cambodian conflict. Now the grouping has 10 members, who have different comfort levels with Beijing.
As a result, Beijing is recrafting its relations with individual Asean members —a pivot of sorts, especially towards less hostile members. It remains to be seen how this strategy will play itself out within the overall Asean-China and intra-Asean relations.
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