Reinstating Ties: Wang Yi’s Timely Trip to Southeast Asia

In an interview with the Global Times, Wang Yi has said that in 2021 China’s Diplomacy will focus on Russia, the US, the EU and Africa. Also in 2021, which marks the 30th anniversary of China-ASEAN Dialogue, Beijing will try to further improve their strategic partnership with the ASEAN in a “new era of peace, development and cooperation for the region”.

Most of the ASEAN countries are part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)and two of its six routes i.e. China and Indo-China peninsula, and Bangladesh, China-India-Myanmar corridor, pass through the region. Furthermore, many of the ASEAN countries feature in China’s Health Silk Road plans. A majority of the ASEAN countries are affected by COVID-19 pandemic and according to the World Health Organization, as of January 2021, the cumulative case counts for Indonesia is 858,043; the Philippines has recorded 492,700 cases and there are 132,260 people infected in Myanmar. China plans to offer vaccines to these countries.

Wang Yi began his visits to Southeast Asia in early January 2021.It was his second tour to the region since October 2020. The countries for the visit were carefully chosen i.e. Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Brunei. Earlier, he had visited Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Singapore.

In the first leg, Wang Yi arrived in Indonesia and called for closer ties amid COVID-19 and assured his hosts continuous supply of vaccines. Last year marked 70th year of the bilateral relationship and the visit affirmed “broader common interests” between China and Indonesia. Both sides also signed memorandum of understanding (MoU) on capacity building of ‘internet security’ and ‘tech cooperation’, and another on “Two Countries, Twin Parks”. Wang Yi also advocated greater synergy between BRI and Indonesia’s Global Maritime Fulcrum vision. He also stressed on the construction of Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway and pushed for building a regional comprehensive economic corridor.

Wang Yi is the first foreign minister to visit Myanmar after the general elections held in November last year. He recalled time-honored “Paukphaw” (fraternal) friendship and common strategic interests between the two countries and assured support to the Myanmar government in their fight against COVID-19 including vaccine supplies. Both sides decided to extend the activities of the China-Myanmar Year of Culture and Tourism and promote people-to-people engagements into 2021.

Both sides also agreed to implement the Five-year plan for economic and trade cooperation, accelerate the promotion of China Myanmar Economic Corridor, construction of Kyaukpyu Deep Sea Port, China Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone and New Yangon City. A MoU on the feasibility study of rail link between Mandalay and Kyaukphyu was also signed.

Myanmar is of immense significance to China as it will take over as Country Coordinator of China-ASEAN relations in 2021. It will be the co-chair of Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, and Co-chair of Consultation on the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.

In 2021, China and Brunei will mark the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Both sides agreed to align China's ‘Long-Range Objectives Through the Year 2035’, with Brunei's national vision the ‘Wawasan 2035’ to take bilateral cooperation to new levels. Agreements between both sides were signed in the field of health, energy, infrastructure and Information Technology. Both sides agreed to fight the pandemic and build “fast tracks” for personnel movement and “green lanes” for goods movements.

There was consensus to accelerate energy related projects such as the Hengyi Industries Sdn Bhd’soil refinery and petrochemical project and Brunei-Guangxi Economic Corridor. It was also agreed to create new growth opportunities in agriculture, fishery, opportunities in the sector of 5G, big data and cloud computing. Wang Yi also attended a logo launch ceremony to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the diplomatic relations.

Brunei has taken over the ASEAN chairmanship later during the year. There was discussion on the South China Sea wherein the two sides agreed to work on the comprehensive and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and to expedite the agreement on substantive and effective regional norms.

In the last leg of the tour, Wang Yi arrived in the Philippines where he reiterated (in mandarin language) that as a “friend of the Philippines and your closest neighbor, we will firmly stand with the people of the Philippines until the defeat of this virus.”There were agreements on investments and infrastructure developments, and issue of the South China Sea was also discussed.

Both sides also signed cooperation documents and unveiled plaque to mark the establishment of Bank of China in Manila as the Renminbi (RMB) Clearing Bank of the Philippines. Both countries also agreed to collaborate on projects under the “Build Build Build” program. The Philippines and China signed the Philippines-China Agreement on Economic and Technical Cooperation. Also, China offered 500 million RMB grant for financing other agreed projects.

In essence, Wang Yi has laid the ground for the success of the bilateral relations. In the time of wolf warrior diplomacy where China has created more foe than friends, China needs to constantly touch the ground through such visits. Also, “China wants to show that they are behind ASEAN countries as the vaccination stage of the pandemic approaches.”

Wang Yi has also ensured that Beijing remains high on the foreign policy priorities of the ASEAN nations notwithstanding the new Administration led by President Joe Biden has now assumed power in the US.

Dr Teshu Singh is Research Fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi.

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