Southeast Asia Warms to China as Cherished Asean Unity Is Restored

This time a year ago, Southeast Asian nations risked descending into squabbling over how to handle China’s assertiveness in their region.

Now, as leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations meet in Manila, the picture looks different. Asean’s famous unity has largely been restored as more countries have either warmed to China or at least indicated a greater acceptance of its clout.

That means discussion of the disputed South China Sea — China claims cross over with some Southeast Asian states — will probably be on the back burner. Instead, talks will focus on trade and investment, and the long-running Asean economic integration process. A recent spike in global tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program may also be discussed.

“Increasingly, the smaller Asean nations such as Cambodia and Laos are moving into China’s orbit, as well as Malaysia and the Philippines to some extent,” said David Skilling, founding director of Landfall Strategy Group, a Singapore-based advisory company. “Countries are being peeled off with a mixture of sticks and carrots.”

In 2016, when an international court ruled in favor of the Philippines against China’s reclamation in the South China Sea, in a case brought by then-President Benigno Aquino, several Asean meetings were marked by unusual signs of public discord among members on how the bloc should respond.

Read more: Singapore says U.S.-China tensions may force nations to choose

Still, President Donald Trump’s move to roll back some of Barack Obama’s U.S. engagement in the region has created an opening for China to talk up its role supporting growth and investment. Beijing has recently improved ties with the Philippines via current President Rodrigo Duterte as well as with Malaysia, while dialing back its rhetoric on the South China Sea. 

That has seen interest wane within Asean in taking a stronger stance against China, and puts U.S. influence in the bloc at risk of fading.

“Asean must be seen as a source of cohesion, solidarity, support, unity, friendship, strength and of course, greater prosperity,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Friday in a speech to a business forum on the sidelines of the Asean summit. He added efforts within Asean to bring down trade tariffs to zero or almost zero from an average of four percent in 2015 must be pursued.

As Asean restores public unity “that strengthens the future” for the bloc, according to former Philippine foreign secretary Delia D. Albert. “We now have to see how China will be able to deliver” on its economic engagement, said Albert, now a senior adviser to professional services firm SGV & Co., a unit of Ernst & Young.

A draft communique shies away from criticizing China for its actions in the South China Sea, according to local media. The draft does not mention the court ruling, though it stresses the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the…

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