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International relations

Xi courts ASEAN at summit as Duterte hits out over South China Sea

Myanmar missing as Chinese president vows more trade and vaccines

Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, takes part in a virtual summit with ASEAN leaders on Nov. 22 -- with an empty space for Myanmar. (Courtesy of Thai government)

SINGAPORE/SHANGHAI -- Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday made a rare appearance in a special online summit with leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, emphasizing Beijing's strong commitment to the bloc and promising to buy billions of dollars worth of ASEAN farm products.

The job of meeting with ASEAN counterparts typically falls to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, the country's second-in-command. Xi's participation is seen as a signal of both his extended control over foreign affairs as well as China's ambition to play a more prominent regional role.

But Monday's summit, meant to commemorate the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-China dialogue, also highlighted persistent challenges, with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte bringing up "grave concern" over the South China Sea.

"We need to practice true multilateralism and stick to the principle that international and regional affairs be handled through discussion among us all," Xi told ASEAN, according to a translated transcript released by state media. "China firmly opposes hegemonism and power politics."

On the contrary, he promised not to "bully" smaller nations and said "China pursues long-term, friendly coexistence with neighboring countries," vowing to "work toward a closer China-ASEAN community with a shared future."

The summit follows a series of major domestic and diplomatic developments for Xi.

Fresh off his first virtual meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden last week, Xi's position was enhanced by a "historical resolution" approved by the Chinese Communist Party. The resolution acknowledged the Xi-led CCP's leadership in driving diplomacy under a "complex international situation." It also highlighted China's "marked increase in international influence, appeal and power to shape" the world, and vowed to exert leadership further.

Xi's participation in the summit may be part of that effort.

"I think [the special summit] is one way of Xi Jinping showing that China is not isolated" despite seesawing relations with the rest of the world, including Southeast Asia, amid the pandemic, said Alan Chong, associate professor at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University. As Monday's meeting was confirmed days after the bilateral talks with Biden, Chong added that it is "also a signal to the U.S. that China is still diplomatically influential."

From ASEAN's perspective, more robust economic ties with China, including trade and travel, would help accelerate the recovery from COVID-19. Chong said the meeting was "one way of guaranteeing that China will be part of the economic recovery."

Xi highlighted that economic role in his remarks. "China has a vast domestic market that will always be open to ASEAN countries," he said. "China is ready to import more quality products from ASEAN countries, including buying up to $150 billion worth of agricultural products from ASEAN in the next five years."

He also pledged to donate another 150 million vaccine doses.

China is increasing its presence in international frameworks as well. In September it applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) free trade deal, which includes several ASEAN members. China already belongs to the soon-to-take-effect Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes all of them.

Yet, as ASEAN economies become more dependent on China in the post-COVID era, they may find Beijing more difficult to deal with. Xi's historical resolution pledged to "fight to the end" against any obstruction to China's rise, saying, "Constant concessions will only invite more bullying and humiliation."

Just days ago, Manila protested an incident in the South China Sea, in which the Chinese Coast Guard used water cannons to block Philippine vessels transporting food supplies to military personnel. On Monday, President Duterte said his country "abhors" the incident and views "with grave concern other similar developments."

"This does not speak well of the relations between our nations and our partnership," he said, according to a statement from his office. Duterte also called the waterway "a strategic challenge."

Chinese coast guard vessels in the South China Sea: An incident with the Philippines last week overshadowed ASEAN's special summit with China.   © Reuters

China's claims to much of the sea overlap with those of several Southeast Asian nations. Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob of Malaysia -- also a claimant -- urged all parties to "exercise self-restraint and avoid actions that may be deemed provocative, which could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the area."

Xi had little to say on the subject, noting only, "Joint efforts are needed to safeguard stability in the South China Sea and make it a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation."

As ASEAN leaders attempt to balance economic ties with China versus territorial interests, they find themselves performing another balancing act between two superpowers.

During Monday's summit, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said U.S.-China cooperation is a "key factor in regional peace and prosperity."

"Countries in the region want good relations with both U.S. and China, and do not wish to have to choose sides," he said. "We therefore welcome the recent high-level exchanges between China and the U.S., including the virtual meeting between President Xi Jinping and President Joseph Biden last week."

Ismail Sabri also called for Beijing and Washington to get along. "Although competition is inevitable, China-U.S. relations must primarily be defined by cooperation," he said. "All countries have a duty to cooperate and collectively promote peace, security, prosperity and progress."

Closer to home, ASEAN sees China as a key influence to help address the ongoing crisis in Myanmar after the military takeover in February. However, Monday's summit once again underscored the difficulty of making progress. According to Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, Myanmar pulled out of the meeting at the eleventh hour.

Beijing had suggested that Myanmar's ambassador to China could represent the military regime. Saifuddin told reporters that the bloc had agreed to this "because ASEAN wanted to maintain the position of Myanmar in the grouping" and that it was the understanding "until late last night."

"However, no representation was made at the summit today. We don't know why," he said. "I look at it as an improvement because at least this time there was an understanding reached for a representation," Saifuddin added. At the ASEAN Summit in late October, the bloc took the unprecedented decision not to invite Myanmar's top military leader Min Aung Hlaing, and the country refused to send a nonpolitical representative in his place.

In any case, Saifuddin made a point of recognizing China's efforts to help break the impasse.

Additional reporting by P Prem Kumar in Kuala Lumpur.

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