Wang Yi’s Southeast Asia tour: How China woos Southeast Asia in view of US-China competition

In January 2021, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited several ASEAN countries, including Brunei, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines, in an effort to push for collaboration in key projects under the BRI, and providing access to Chinese vaccines. However, Beijing’s passage of a new coastguard law has undermined Wang Yi’s outreach efforts. ISEAS academic Lye Liang Fook explains what is behind China's efforts and looks into its implications.
This handout photo taken on 13 January 2021 by Indonesia's Ministry of Maritime and Investment Affairs shows Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) meeting with Indonesian Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investments Minister Luhut Pandjaitan in Parapat, on the edge of Lake Toba in North Sumatra, to discuss cooperation on investments. (Handout/Ministry of Maritime and Investment Affairs/AFP)
This handout photo taken on 13 January 2021 by Indonesia's Ministry of Maritime and Investment Affairs shows Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) meeting with Indonesian Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investments Minister Luhut Pandjaitan in Parapat, on the edge of Lake Toba in North Sumatra, to discuss cooperation on investments. (Handout/Ministry of Maritime and Investment Affairs/AFP)

Although China has stuck to its more than three-decade long tradition of having its foreign minister visit Africa in his first foreign trip of the year, Southeast Asia has especially in recent years featured prominently in China’s foreign policy. Last year, soon after State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited the African countries of Burundi, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea and Zimbabwe on 7 to 13 January 2020, he accompanied Chinese President Xi Jinping on a state visit to Myanmar the following week, on 17 to18 January.

This year, Southeast Asia has featured prominently as well where such high-level visits from Beijing are concerned. Very soon after his five-nation African tour of Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Seychelles and Tanzania on 4 to 9 January 2021, Wang Yi embarked on his Southeast Asian visit to Brunei, Indonesia, Myanmar and The Philippines lasting from 11 to 16 January 2021.

China's focus on Southeast Asia

Wang Yi’s January 2021 Southeast Asia visit is part of the continuous efforts China has been making to engage the region. This engagement seems to have assumed more importance in the past two years, beginning with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar in early 2020. Xi’s visit was significant for a number of reasons. First, this was Xi’s first overseas visit in 2020 which indicated China’s intention that year to focus on strengthening its ties with Southeast Asia in general and with Myanmar in particular. In the event, due to the Covid-19 outbreak, Xi’s Myanmar visit turned out to be the only foreign trip he took in 2020. Second, it was the first state visit to Myanmar by a Chinese president in 19 years. Third, the trip was a single-country visit, which departed from the usual Chinese practice of combining a few countries in one trip (see Table 1 below).

Myanmar has continued to receive much attention from China throughout 2020 and 2021, and was the country most visited by Chinese dignitaries.

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Source: ISEAS (Image: Jace Yip)

Myanmar has continued to receive much attention from China throughout 2020 and 2021, and was the country most visited by Chinese dignitaries. In September 2020, Politburo member and former Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi visited Myanmar. This was Yang’s second visit to Myanmar; he had accompanied Chinese President Xi Jinping to Naypyitaw in January 2020. In 2021, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi again accorded importance to Myanmar when he made the country his first stop in his first trip to Southeast Asia. Chinese media highlighted that Wang Yi was the first foreign minister to visit Myanmar since national elections were held there in November 2020.

There are a number of reasons behind China’s focus on Myanmar. One is that Myanmar will be the country coordinator for China-ASEAN relations in July 2021 for a three-year term. Another reason is that Myanmar is the current co-chair of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, an initiative of China involving five other ASEAN riparian member states.  A longer-standing reason is that China has generally sought to work with whoever is in power in Myanmar. Before the military coup of February 2021, China lent its support to the NLD-led government and especially Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been criticised by the West and Malaysia over her handling of the Rohingya issue. Now, in the aftermath of the coup, China is attempting not to overreact, in the hope that it could reach some form of understanding with the Myanmar military so as to put China-Myanmar relations on a stable footing.

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China's State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi is welcomed by and Myanmar's state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, 11 January 2021. (Myanmar President Office/Handout via REUTERS)

Wang Yi’s January visit should also be viewed in conjunction with earlier visits by himself and other Chinese dignitaries to Southeast Asia. Taken together, they have covered nine out of the 10 ASEAN member states. The ninth country, Singapore, was covered twice in 2020, once as a transit stop in October while the other was during Yang Jiechi’s visit in August for the 30th anniversary of China-Singapore relations.

That leaves Vietnam as the only country ostensibly left out in previous visits. However, this does not mean that Hanoi is any less important to China. There is a view that Vietnam was not included in Wang Yi’s January visit as Hanoi was preoccupied with preparations for its all-important 13th National Congress. If so, we can expect senior level exchanges to resume after the conclusion of the Congress.

Furthermore, although there were no senior level visits from China to Vietnam in 2020, high-level interactions between the two countries have continued unabated. Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke on the phone with his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Phu Trong in September 2020; following on a conversation they had had in January 2020. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang spoke with his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc in April 2020 and they met online for the 3rd Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting in August 2020. Wang Yi and his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh met physically in Vientiane, Laos in February 202011 and again in Dongxing, Guangxi in August 2020.

As for Indonesia, China regards the country as the most important Southeast Asian state given its size and its weight in the Muslim world.

China has accorded more attention to Brunei since 2020 to lay the groundwork for better ties, given Brunei’s role as chair of ASEAN in 2021. 2021 also marks the 30th anniversary of China-ASEAN dialogue relations and the 30th anniversary of China-Brunei diplomatic relations. Furthermore, Brunei is a Southeast Asian claimant state in the South China Sea, and China would like it to maintain a low profile on the issue especially when the US is urging Southeast Asian claimant states to stand up to China’s bullying in this area.

During Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe's visit to Brunei in September 2020, he called on Brunei and China to continue to “strengthen bilateral communication and consultation, and promote maritime cooperation so as to jointly maintain peace and tranquillity in the South China Sea”. China’s preference is for differences on the South China Sea issue to be addressed bilaterally between Beijing and the relevant Southeast Asian claimant states, including Brunei. Wang Yi included Brunei in his January 2021 Southeast Asian tour, in another signal that China would like to work with Brunei to strengthen bilateral ties and promote China-ASEAN relations.

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Indonesian national flags fly at a business district, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Jakarta, Indonesia, 5 February 2021. (Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana/REUTERS)

As for Indonesia, China regards the country as the most important Southeast Asian state given its size and its weight in the Muslim world. President Xi Jinping spoke three times with his Indonesian counterpart in 2020, on a noticeably more frequent basis than with any other Southeast Asian leader in that year. Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe and Foreign Minister Wang Yi also included Indonesia in their Southeast Asian tours in September 2020 and January 2021 respectively. Indonesia can be expected to continue featuring prominently in China’s relations with Southeast Asia.

Key thrusts

There are a number of key thrusts in Wang Yi’s latest visit to Southeast Asia. Foremost among them is to show that there is much potential for China and Southeast Asia to work together to promote economic recovery amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Before Wang Yi’s visit, Chinese media highlighted that “history was made” when ASEAN became China’s largest trading partner in 2020. Echoing this message, Premier Li Keqiang told his ASEAN counterparts at the ASEAN-China Summit in November 2020 that China-ASEAN trade had bucked the global trend of shrinking world trade, economic recession and constraints on people-to-people exchanges. Based on Chinese statistics, China-ASEAN trade reached $481.8 billion, up 5% year-on-year in the first three quarters of 2020, making ASEAN China’s largest trading partner.

Economic cooperation for recovery and growth was a key theme during Wang Yi’s visit to Southeast Asia. For instance, his first stop in Indonesia was Lake Toba in North Sumatra, where he was welcomed by the Indonesian Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment, Luhut Pandjaitan. Apart from being Indonesia’s point man on promoting economic cooperation with China, the Lake Toba itinerary underscored the message that Indonesia welcomes Chinese tourists as well as investments from China.

Another thrust, related to economic cooperation, is China’s continued emphasis on pushing ahead with its signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Southeast Asia.

During Wang Yi’s visit to Brunei, Myanmar and the Philippines, it was announced that China and these countries have agreed to establish some form of “fast track” arrangement for the flow of people and “green lanes” for the flow of goods to promote economic recovery. In addition, while Wang Yi was in the Philippines, it was announced that The Bank of China Manila would be the RMB Clearing Bank in the Philippines to support the growing local RMB market.

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Passengers wearing face masks and face shields for protection against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) get off a train in Manila, Philippines, 29 January 2021. (Eloisa Lopez/REUTERS)

Another thrust, related to economic cooperation, is China’s continued emphasis on pushing ahead with its signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Southeast Asia. This is evident in the instances listed below:

In Myanmar, Wang Yi reiterated during his call on Aung San Suu Kyi that the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor is a flagship project under the BRI.

In Indonesia, Wang Yi indicated to President Jokowi during their meeting that China was willing to work with Indonesia to promote “high quality” BRI cooperation including speeding up the Jakarta-Bandung High Speed Rail project.

 In Brunei, Wang Yi made a call for both sides to speed up the Hengyi petrochemical as well as the Guangxi–Brunei Economic Corridor projects during his meeting with Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah.

When Wang Yi was in the Philippines, it was announced that the two countries had signed a commercial contract to build a railway connecting Subic Bay to Clark Air Base. This is apparently the highest-funded government-to-government project between the two countries, valued around US$940 million, and is a flagship project under President Duterte’s “Build, Build, Build” programme.

Yet another thrust of Wang Yi’s visit is China’s effort to position itself as a key provider of Covid vaccines to Southeast Asia. Going beyond earlier professions of making China’s Covid vaccines a global public good, Wang Yi pledged to donate 300,000 doses of coronavirus vaccines to Myanmar and 500,000 similar doses to the Philippines. In Brunei, the response to China’s vaccines was considerably muted with Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah reportedly expressing a general interest on Brunei’s part to cooperate with China in the field of vaccines when he met Wang Yi for talks.

Indonesia became the first country outside China to green light the use of the vaccine.

In contrast, the most high-profile attention and vote of confidence accorded to China’s vaccines was in Indonesia. Most notably, during Wang Yi’s visit to Indonesia, President Jokowi launched Indonesia’s vaccination drive by going live on national television to receive Sinovac's CoronaVac at the presidential palace in Jakarta on 13 January 2021. Jokowi had explained in an earlier social media post that he would be first in line for the jab to show that the vaccine was safe and halal.

Indonesia appeared to have pulled out all the stops to launch CoronaVac for use during Wang Yi’s visit. A day before Wang Yi’s arrival in Indonesia, i.e., on 11 January 2021, the Indonesian Food and Drug Monitoring Agency (BPOM) approved CoronaVac for emergency use, citing interim data showing a 65.3% efficacy rate, above the World Health Organisation threshold of 50%. In doing so, Indonesia became the first country outside China to green light the use of the vaccine.

Among the Southeast Asian countries, Indonesia is the most engaged in terms of Covid-19 collaboration with China. Since August 2020, Sinovac and its local Indonesian partner, Bio Farma, launched Phase 3 clinical trials in Bandung. In addition, Indonesia has inked a deal to procure at least 125 million doses of Sinovac vaccine to be produced jointly with Bio Farma. Under this arrangement, Sinovac will supply not only the bulk of vaccines but also extend the technology licensing to enable Bio Farma to produce the vaccine locally. While in Indonesia, Wang Yi reaffirmed China’s commitment to continue vaccine production cooperation with Indonesia and support the latter to become a regional vaccine production hub. The idea of making Indonesia a vaccine production hub was apparently first mentioned during Luhut’s visit to China in October 2020.

Wang Yi said that the South China Sea issue is only partial to the entirety of China-Philippine relations, and that the two countries should not allow their one percent difference on this issue affect the 99 percent of their overall relations.

A final thrust of Wang Yi’s visit was to downplay China’s differences with Southeast Asia, especially on the South China Sea issue. In particular, while commenting on his Philippine visit at the end of his Southeast tour, Wang Yi said that the South China Sea issue is only partial to the entirety of China-Philippine relations, and that the two countries should not allow their one percent difference on this issue affect the 99% of their overall relations. He reiterated the call for China and the Philippines to push ahead with oil and gas exploration, as a means of exploring a breakthrough to this problem left over from history. Separately, during Wang Yi’s Brunei visit, China and Brunei agreed to set up a working group on energy cooperation and work towards establishing a working group on maritime cooperation.

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This handout photo taken on 16 January 2021 and received from the Presidential Photo Department (PPD) shows Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (second from right) welcoming China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) during a courtesy call at the Malacanang Palace in Manila. (Richard Madelo/Presidential Photo Department/AFP)

Challenges ahead

Through Wang Yi’s latest Southeast Asia tour, one may note that China is trying to set its relations with the region on a correct footing that it hopes will last through the year. At one level, China seeks to strengthen its ties with individual Southeast Asian countries as well as with ASEAN as a whole. At another level, China’s efforts to reach out to Southeast Asia is driven by the dynamics of the US-China relationship. By visiting Southeast Asia before Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration, China is seeking to either draw Southeast Asia closer to Beijing or cajole Southeast Asian countries to remain neutral in its ongoing competition with the US. Beijing is concerned that the US will work closer with its allies and partners, some of which are in Southeast Asia, to counteract a more assertive China.

However, as had happened before, Beijing’s positive moves in one particular area is sometimes undermined by its own actions in other areas. For example, barely a week after Wang Yi’s Southeast Asia tour, China adopted a law that empowers its coastguard to take necessary action including firing on foreign vessels to safeguard China’s sovereignty at sea. Although the state media positioned the passage of the law as directed at upholding China’s sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands (or Senkaku Islands in Japanese), the same law does not preclude its coastguard from enforcing China’s claims in the South China Sea. This law is likely to raise concern among Southeast Asian claimant states over how China intends to enforce its claims in the South China Sea, and complicate efforts by China and ASEAN to conclude the Code of Conduct (CoC) by end 2021. Discussions on the CoC had already been put on the backburner last year due to Covid-19.

China may further need to tread carefully in terms of its signature initiatives in Southeast Asia. In reviving their economies from the negative impact of Covid-19, Southeast Asian countries are likely to scrutinise more closely projects under the BRI, especially in terms of their commercial viability. Likewise, on China’s part, Covid-19 presents an opportunity for Beijing to re-assess its BRI projects to emphasise quality and the sharing of benefits with recipient countries. The mere fact that Wang Yi has to make a call for such projects to be speeded up is already telling. A few successful projects will likely be more effective in projecting a positive image of China than the unsuccessful ones that are the subject of constant media attention.

China has the opportunity to draw useful experiences from the backlash against the BRI and apply them in the rolling out of its vaccines in Southeast Asia.

China’s provision of Covid vaccines will likely be welcomed in Southeast Asia especially when vaccines from other suppliers are in short supply. However, Beijing can do more to ensure the transparency of its vaccine data. In addition, it may need to accord more consideration on how it intends to roll out its vaccines in Southeast Asia. Its promise to make Indonesia a regional vaccine production hub may backfire if other Southeast Asian countries regard this as implying that they are less important in gaining access to vaccines from China. Beijing will also need to be mindful of domestic political and ethnic sensitivities if Jakarta is seen as being over-reliant on Chinese vaccines. Furthermore, it may be prudent for Beijing not to over-commit in terms of how much vaccine it can deliver and over its efficacy so as not to raise undue expectations.

China has the opportunity to draw useful experiences from the backlash against the BRI and apply them in the rolling out of its vaccines in Southeast Asia. A more transparent and science-based approach based on data is likely to receive a more receptive response from recipient countries than a resort to chest-thumping nationalism over how Chinese vaccines are as good if not better than those produced by other suppliers.

This article was first published as ISEAS Perspective 2021/10 “Wang Yi’s Southeast Asia Tour: Significance and Challenges” by Lye Liang Fook.

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