China turned on the charm at a regional security meeting this week, signaling a change in tone as President Xi Jinping seeks to counter a U.S. push for more influence in Asia.
China agreed during an Association of Southeast Asian Nations-hosted forum in Brunei to meet with the 10-member group in September to develop rules to avoid conflict in waters marked by confrontations with nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines. The country also expressed unity with the U.S., South Korea and Japan to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons.
Those policy stances may reflect a more conciliatory approach after China’s aggressive assertion of sovereignty claims in the South China Sea in recent years prompted its neighbors to boost security links with America. China is vying for influence in Asia while the U.S. conducts a strategic pivot toward the region and lends support to allies like the Philippines.
“China has moved from the ’do little, engage little’ form of engagement to ’do a lot, engage a lot,’” said Gary Li, a senior analyst at IHS Maritime in London. “The new dynamism signals a potential new era in Chinese relations with its neighbors, including Asean.”
Foreign Minister Wang Yi, attending his first Asean meeting since Xi took China’s presidency in March, said China and Asean were “like members of one big family.” He pledged to upgrade an Asean-China trade agreement and push ahead with talks on a regional economic partnership.
A year ago, China warned nations to avoid mentioning the territorial spats during Asean meetings and said it would only begin talks on a code of conduct for the South China Sea “when conditions are ripe.”
China may be taking a friendlier tone to isolate the Philippines over a dispute that’s seen several standoffs between Chinese and Philippine vessels. The Philippines has boosted defense ties with Japan and the Obama administration, which since 2011 sought to “pivot” toward Asia following a focus on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq under former President George W. Bush.
China is “turning on a charm offensive to Asean as a whole, and at the same time making it clear that it is the Philippines that is making trouble,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham in the U.K.
Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul, speaking in a joint briefing with Wang on June 30, called Asean’s relationship with China strong and said it was “the pillar that underpins peace, security and prosperity in the region.”
Wang met representatives from India, Pakistan and Mongolia on the sidelines of the summit as well, pledging to advance cooperation, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
The Philippines on June 30 issued a statement saying the presence of Chinese ships around two land features it claims in the South China Sea threatened maritime peace. Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario said Wang was looking to make a good impression at his first Asean meeting since China’s leadership handover.
“It’s a new government -- they’ve got to do that,” he said when asked about China’s statements.
Japan also sees more provocations from China, Japan’s ambassador to the U.S., Kenichiro Sasae, said last month. China’s military buildup -- it will boost defense spending 10.7 percent this year -- fits a pattern of belligerent behavior, he said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry left behind marathon meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to attend the Asean forum and reinforce America’s commitment to Asia.
“I’m here,” Kerry said in response to a question on whether he was focusing more on the Middle East at the expense of Asia. “I want you to be absolutely confident over the next three and half years of the Obama presidency you will see an energized and serious engagement in continuing the rebalance efforts.”
Kerry met his South Korean and Japanese counterparts to discuss cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue. He also met Wang to reaffirm the participation of China, the North’s main diplomatic and economic backer, to avoid engaging Kim Jong Un’s regime unless it gives up its ambition for nuclear weapons.
Wang reiterated China’s commitment to a nuclear-free North Korea and called for the resumption of six-party talks after meeting North Korean counterpart Pak Ui Chun on July 1. China in May tightened enforcement of United Nations sanctions targeting North Korea’s financial transactions.
North Korea’s delegation at the Asean forum yesterday declined to comment on China’s stance. Instead delegation official Choe Myong Nam accused the U.S. and South Korea of escalating tensions in the region, calling on the U.S. to “unconditionally” accept its offer in June for dialogue.
“China knows that it is in an unfavorable position as the U.S., South Korea and Japan strengthen their alliance based on the North Korea nuclear issue,” said Kim Han Kwon, director of the Center for China Policy at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. China made “ a strategic decision to counterbalance America’s superior political and military influence over the region,” Kim said.