Hi, China Watchers. The Biden administration hopes it’s second time lucky in executing its U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit opening today in Washington, D.C. — we examine the meeting’s key friction points. We’ll also scrutinize Chinese President XI JINPING’s “respect-deficit syndrome,” parse the new “victory” narrative for his Covid policies and profile a book that unpacks China’s complicated relationship with Southeast Asia. And next Thursday, May 19, we’ll host a China Watcher Twitter Spaces event that will probe the promise and pitfalls of Biden’s big Asia month, starting with the U.S.-ASEAN summit, his May 20-24 South Korea-Japan trip and the in-person meeting of the leaders of the Quad. Stay tuned for details.
Let’s get to it. — Phelim
President JOE BIDEN wants to leverage the two-day U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit, which begins today, to align the grouping’s diverse membership with his administration’s China-countering Indo-Pacific strategy. But he’s likely to face a skeptical audience.
The summit marks the climax of an 11-month diplomatic campaign to reassert U.S. regional influence and reverse perceptions of American indifference dating to the DONALD TRUMP presidency.
Biden’s challenge in reaffirming U.S. leadership in Southeast Asia hinges on Washington’s ability to provide meaningful economic engagement with ASEAN countries to offset China’s deep inroads into the region, particularly through its Belt and Road initiative.
“On the security side, the United States is upping its game and it’s doing quite a good job with the Quad and AUKUS, but what countries care about in the region is on the economic and trade side,” PAUL HAENLE, former National Security Council China director, told China Watcher. “The optics are now that the United States is bringing the guns and the ammunition to the region, and that China is trying to address the bread and butter economic and trade issues and that’s a problem for the United States.”
Military might threads U.S. relationships across the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. and the Philippines conducted their largest-ever joint war game exercises in March in an implicit rebuke to China’s increasingly assertive military presence in the region. In February, the State Department approved a $13.9 billion sale of F-15ID aircraft and related equipment to Indonesia. That same month, China’s aggressive incursions into Taiwan’s air defense zone powered the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency to approve the sale of a $100 million arms package to “sustain, maintain and improve” the self-governing island’s Patriot missile defense systems.
U.S.-ASEAN relations are a key component of the Indo-Pacific strategy’s goal of reinforcing what Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN calls the “rules-based international order.”
“There is a deep recognition that fundamental long term challenges are playing out in the Indo-Pacific and the United States is committed and determined to ensuring that our engagement in the region is broad-based and is sustained,” a National Security Council spokesperson said Wednesday.
Beijing bellicose. That’s code for a regional diplomatic bulwark against China. And Beijing doesn’t like it.
“To pursue the Indo-Pacific strategy … is as dangerous as the NATO strategy of eastward expansion in Europe,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister LE YUCHENG warned in March. “If allowed to go on unchecked, it would bring unimaginable consequences, and ultimately push the Asia-Pacific over the edge of an abyss.”
A preliminary summit agenda suggests the administration wants to provide a credible alternative to China’s regional diplomatic heft by focusing on myriad issues that go beyond the traditional U.S. role of military guarantor and arms-trader-in-chief. “We are looking forward to new initiatives on maritime cooperation, health and pandemic recovery, climate action, clean energy, sustainable infrastructure development, trade capacity-building, and several educational and cultural programs,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement.
The administration is deploying top officials to hammer home a message of U.S. resolve in deepening relations with ASEAN. That will include House Speaker NANCY PELOSI hosting a bipartisan working lunch today followed by Commerce Secretary GINA RAIMONDO and U.S. Trade Representative KATHERINE TAI leading senior U.S. business leaders in discussions with ASEAN leaders on “strengthening economic cooperation,” the NSC spokesperson said. Vice President KAMALA HARRIS and Blinken will host a working lunch Friday focused on “maritime cooperation and pandemic recovery and health security,” said the NSC spokesperson.
Long time, no see. The administration’s success requires bridging a confidence gap among Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ members created by a perception that the U.S. has downgraded the grouping as a priority. The absence of a designated U.S. ambassador to ASEAN since 2017 has fueled the view that the U.S. has taken the region for granted.
“Suddenly you see the U.S. emerging back in the region after a lapse of five or six years and this is going to be challenging [because] it’s about confidence building,” said CHARLES SANTIAGO, a member of parliament for Malaysia’s Democratic Action Party and chair of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights. “[The U.S.] has got to do a lot of engagement at a personal level and also diplomatically to have a stronger presence in the region.”
The administration appears to have recognized that regional skepticism and has laid the groundwork for the summit with a flurry of senior official-led initiatives with ASEAN counterparts. Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN held a virtual meeting of ASEAN defense ministers in June, followed by Harris’ trip to Singapore and Vietnam in August. Blinken followed that a month later by hosting a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers that primed the pump for Biden’s virtual U.S.-ASEAN Summit in October.
Biden backed rhetoric with cash at the virtual summit by committing $102 million in funding for projects, including ASEAN’s Covid recovery and climate crisis. The administration rounded out the year by dispatching Commerce Secretary Raimondo to Singapore and Malaysia in November followed by a Blinken regional tour in December.
“We are in many ways following the recommendations of individual countries in the region that said that the United States has to take the necessary steps to bolster our engagement with [ASEAN], and we’re seeking to do that,” the NSC spokesperson said.
Balancing act. Challenging China’s regional economic dominance will be a heavy lift. China has been ASEAN’s biggest trading partner since 1999 with the U.S. now in a distant second place. Beijing’s trade with Southeast Asia hit $685 billion in 2020, almost double U.S.-ASEAN trade of $362 billion the same year. China has also ramped up investment in the region through Belt and Road Initiative projects, including the $5.9 billion China-Laos Railway and the $7.9 billion high-speed rail project linking Indonesia’s capital Jakarta with the city of Bandung in West Java.
“The ASEAN approach is not a matter of colonialism or historical hostility or sentimentality, it’s a classic balance of power game,” said RENATO CRUZ DE CASTRO, Charles Lui Chi Keung professorial chair in China Studies at De La Salle University in Manila. “China’s economic presence is growing, but ASEAN countries are generally suspicious of China.”
That suspicion won’t bridge ASEAN’s internal split between pro-U.S. and pro-China members. The U.S. has formal and informal alliances or partnerships with Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia. And Beijing has reliable allies with the authoritarian governments running Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. But that geostrategic division of loyalties doesn’t preclude the U.S. from cultivating deeper economic links across ASEAN that can translate into future diplomatic leverage.
“ASEAN countries want to have diversification [and] they want to have multiple options when it comes to developing their economies,” said TED OSIUS, president of the US-ASEAN Business Council. “There’s no ASEAN that is, ‘Oh, we really want to be dominated by one partner’ — there’s a tremendous interest in having as many friends and trading partners as possible.”
Where’s the IPEF? The Biden administration’s new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework would be a good foundation for U.S.-ASEAN discussions on deepening ties. But so far, it’s more slogan than specifics. “There’s a lot of skepticism out here in the region … that there’s not a credible and an appealing economic and trade approach to the region by the United States,” Haenle said.
Unfortunately for summit participants, details of the IPEF won’t be available until later this month. Japanese ambassador to the U.S., KOJI TOMITA, said Monday that the framework’s “formal launch” will occur during upcoming visit to South Korea and Japan.
But that shouldn’t derail discussion of the IPEF during the summit.
“Even though the IPEF isn’t a formal agenda item at the special summit, you can bet it will be discussed in almost every meeting,” Osius said. “It’s not an ASEAN-wide initiative, the administration has made a decision that they want it to be a high-quality trade agreement, so they’ve approached Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines for discussions on membership in IPEF.”
Ukraine’s long shadow. The U.S. will also benefit from regional dismay at Russia’s Ukraine invasion. “All countries in Asia … are determined to send a cautionary [message] that nothing like what we’ve seen with respect to this military action in Europe should be contemplated in the Indo-Pacific region,” KURT CAMPBELL, the National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event on Monday.
That latent fear of Chinese territorial aggression creates an opportunity for the U.S. to double down on the values that underpin the Indo-Pacific strategy and that are antithetical to those of the authoritarian regimes in Beijing and Moscow.
“The U.S. and Western Europe seem to fear that to push for democratization would be like herding ASEAN member states into the Chinese camp,” KASIT PIROMYA, a former Thai foreign minister, told China Watcher. “But the U.S. side must stand up to its principles and not be put into a blackmail-like dilemma.”
— U.S. PUSHING TAIWAN TOWARD OTHER WEAPONS: The Biden administration is rebuffing some of Taiwan’s requests for big-ticket weapons, instead urging Taipei to buy other equipment the U.S. believes will better deter and defend against China, POLITICO’s ALEX WARD, LARA SELIGMAN and NAHAL TOOSI reported Tuesday. Those moves are part of a Biden administration response to concerns about a possible Chinese invasion of the self-governing island. They also come as Washington, Taipei and Beijing seek parallels in Ukraine’s existential conflict with Russia.
— STATE’S TAIWAN PAGE UPGRADE RILES BEIJING: The State Department’s recently adjusted wording on its Taiwan page has raised hackles in Beijing. The updates excise a passage stating the U.S. acknowledges “the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China” and replaces it with a description of the self-governing island as “a leading democracy and … a key U.S. partner in the Indo-Pacific.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson ZHAO LIJIAN on Tuesday called that rewording “a trick … to change the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.”
— SENIOR OFFICIALS URGE STEM IMMIGRATION PROGRAM: A group of 49 former senior U.S. defense, intelligence, science and Homeland Security officials has urged Congress to ensure the Bipartisan Innovation Act relaxes immigration restrictions on individuals with science, technology, engineering and math expertise to boost America’s competitive edge against China. “The most powerful and enduring asymmetric advantage America has is its ability to attract and retain the world’s best and brightest,” the former officials, who included former Secretary of Defense WILLIAM COHEN and former Secretary of Energy STEVE CHU, said in a letter sent Monday to senior congressional leaders.
— SHERMAN WARNS AFRICA ON HUAWEI RISKS: U.S. Deputy Secretary of State WENDY SHERMAN warned African countries that telecom technology produced by China’s Huawei creates potentially serious national security risks. “We believe that when countries choose Huawei, they are potentially giving up their sovereignty. They are turning over their data to another country. They may find themselves bringing in a surveillance capability they didn’t even know was there,” Sherman said in a virtual press briefing to African journalists on Friday. Huawei components constitute 70 percent of Africa’s 4G networks. “The US official’s groundless and denigrating remarks about China only serve to expose the US’ malicious attempt to hostilely contain China and sow discord in China-Africa cooperation,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Zhao responded Monday.
— BIDEN: CHINA HATES BIPARTISAN INNOVATION ACT: Biden’s new reason for Congress to pass the Bipartisan Innovation Act — China wants it to fail. “It’s no wonder the Chinese Communist Party is literally lobbying — paying lobbyists — against this bill passing,” Biden said in a speech Friday. The White House says the act, which is a combination of several bills geared to boost America’s competitive edge against China, will spur “generational investments in innovation, domestic manufacturing, and lowering prices through stronger supply chains.”
— HONG KONG’S NEW ‘ENFORCER’ CHIEF EXECUTIVE: JOHN LEE KA-CHIU’s election Sunday as Hong Kong’s new chief executive signals a decisive turn in the territory’s lurch toward Beijing-style authoritarian rule, your host reported Monday. Lee, the territory’s former secretary of security, won an uncontested vote Sunday as the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s candidate of choice and his anointment raises the risks to foreign business operations in the territory. The reported arrest on Wednesday of Hong Kong’s Catholic Cardinal JOSEPH ZEN ZE-KIUN, activist singer DENISE HO WAN-SZE and former opposition lawmaker MARGARET NG NGOI-YEE on charges of “colluding with foreign forces” underscores Lee’s zero-tolerance approach to perceived dissent.
— CHINA GOES NUTTY OVER NED: The U.S. government-funded National Endowment for Democracy is “one of the US government’s main ‘foot soldiers’, ‘white gloves’ and ‘democracy crusaders’, has subverted lawful governments and cultivated pro-US puppet forces around the world under the pretext of promoting democracy,” reads the intro to a bizarre 7,234 word Chinese Foreign Ministry screed about NED published Saturday. NED is a State Department-funded nonprofit Reagan-era entity dedicated to providing “a comprehensive support system for democrats in more than 90 countries.” NED’s China-focused projects in 2021 included “Defending the Religious Liberty of Persecuted Individuals through Media Advocacy” and “Advancing Worker Rights and the Rule Of Law.” NED didn’t respond to requests for comment.
— JAPAN: UKRAINE DEFENSE CAN DETER CHINA: Japanese Defense Minister NOBUO KISHI said the robust international response to support Ukraine against Russia’s invasion can deter China from similar aggression in the Indo-Pacific. “China has been carefully observing the current situation of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and they are paying particularly close attention to what kind of reactions the international community has been taking,” Kishi told The Washington Post last week. As Russian troops lay waste to Ukrainian cities, China has tried to walk a tightrope: abstaining from condemnations of Moscow, maintaining trade with its neighbor and denouncing U.S. threats of sanctions against Chinese entities that support Moscow’s war effort.
— XI AND PUTIN: RESPECT-DEFICIT DICTATORS: Saturday marked the anniversary of the 1999 NATO forces’ accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia. “The Chinese people will never forget such barbaric atrocities of NATO and will never allow the historical tragedy to be repeated,” the Foreign Ministry’s Zhao said Friday.
That demonstrates the durability of the Chinese narrative of the Belgrade embassy bombing — Beijing decried it as an intentional “crime of war” — 23 years later. And its utility in supporting the Chinese government’s current campaign of blaming NATO’s expansion into the former Soviet Union states as the trigger for Russia’s Ukraine invasion. A NATO investigation concluded the attack was due to faulty maps; President BILL CLINTON later personally apologized to Chinese President JIANG ZEMIN for the deaths of three Chinese citizens in the attack.
Zhao’s wolfish commemoration reflects what ORVILLE SCHELL, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, calls a “respect-deficit syndrome” that Xi shares with Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN.
“Both are deeply insecure, paranoid men who have been shaped by historical narratives of grievance, especially against the ‘great powers’ of the West,” Schell wrote in a Project Syndicate analysis published in March. “These narratives center around Leninist themes of foreign exploitation, humiliation, and victimization. They demonize Western democracies as hypocrites and oppressors (as in Lenin’s theory of imperialism). And they impute arrogant and disdainful attitudes to the West.”
— XI SEEKS ‘VICTORY’ WITH ‘ZERO-COVID’: Xi signaled last week that his “zero-Covid” strategy will continue at all costs. “Victory comes from perseverance … unswervingly adhere to the dynamic zero-COVID policy, and combat any rhetoric and actions that distort, doubt, or deny our country’s anti-epidemic policies,” said a state media readout of a meeting where Xi “delivered an important speech.” That signals Xi’s defiance of growing criticism of the widening lockdown of Shanghai to stop its Omicron variant outbreak.
“What [China has] done is they’ve tried to invent the anti-gravity infectious disease machine and it’s not working,” said MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “That’s best demonstrated by Taiwan coming out this past weekend saying they are not able to achieve nor are they trying to achieve a ‘zero-COVID’ policy — that was a big deal [because] if anybody could do it, it would have been Taiwan.”
Director-General of the World Health Organization TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS echoed that view by declaring Tuesday that “we don’t think that [zero-Covid] is sustainable, considering the behavior of the virus now.” China responded by censoring those remarks on Tedros’ Weibo account.
Lockdowns linked to the policy have cost the Chinese economy $2.68 trillion so far this year, according to an estimate byXU JIANGUO, associate professor of economics at the National School of Development at Peking University. An American Chamber of Commerce in China survey about zero-Covid’s economic impact revealed that “[m]embers don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel … the current measures are throttling US business confidence in China,” AmCham Chair COLM RAFFERTY said in a statement Monday.
Xi sees “zero-Covid” success as a testament to wise governance at the all-important 20th Party Congress (rumored to be scheduled for November) where he is expected to assume an unprecedented third term as China’s leader. But that’s a gamble. “This is having a profound effect on the party’s overall credibility in the eyes of the Chinese public that the security apparatus are willing and capable of keeping the lid on, unless it becomes a long-term strategy where large slabs of the country are locked down,” former Australian Prime Minister KEVIN RUDD said in a speech Monday to the Asia Society.
New York Times: “Has Shanghai Been Xinjianged?”
Committee to Protect Journalists: “How China is stepping up harassment of foreign correspondents”
The New Yorker: “A Teacher in China Learns the Limits of Free Expression”
— CHINA’S ‘ZERO-COVID’ DERAILS ASIAN GAMES: Proof of the long-term tenacity of Xi’s “zero-Covid” strategy is the Olympic Council of Asia’s decision Friday to indefinitely postpone September’s 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou due to “the pandemic situation and the size of the Games,” an OCA statement said. The sports body for the same reason canceled outright the Asian Youth Games scheduled for December in Shantou.
The Book: “In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century”
The Author: SEBASTIAN STRANGIO is a journalist, author and analyst focusing on Southeast Asia. He spent three years at The Phnom Penh Post and has reported from Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, South Korea and the Russian Far East.
What is the most important takeaway from your book?
U.S. perceptions of China, and the threats posed by it, differ greatly outside the States. The ASEAN governments have many reasons for concern. But they are also closely bound to China economically, giving them a strong stake in its continued stability and prosperity, and in general do not share the conception, increasingly ascendant in Washington, of a world divided between democratic and authoritarian states — something that arguably says more about the U.S. than it does about global realities. Dwelling so close to China, these nations do not enjoy the luxury of simple binaries.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching and writing this book?
The political sensitivities that still attach to ethnic Chinese diaspora communities of Southeast Asia. While we focus a lot on the disputes in the South China Sea, many Southeast Asians are if anything more concerned about the fear that Beijing might abandon its “hands-off” approach toward the region’s ethnic Chinese and seek to convert ethnic and cultural affiliations into political support. Indeed, there are already some signs that this might be happening.
What does your book tell us about the trajectory and future of U.S.-China relations?
The two superpowers largely view Southeast Asia through the lens of their mutual competition. In its attempt to displace the U.S. and reclaim its former status as the dominant power in Asia, China has shown little sensitivity to Southeast Asian fears and perceptions. The U.S. approach to Southeast Asia has similarly been shaped by its fears of China, but also reveals its lack of a clear strategy. What is Washington’s envisioned end goal of its competition with Beijing? It isn’t clear. Washington’s Manichean, ideological view of its own role in the world, and the wounded, aggrieved hyper-nationalism of Xi Jinping’s China, have put the two superpowers — and Asia as a whole — on a dangerous trajectory.
Got a book to recommend? Tell me about it at [email protected].
Thanks to: Ben Pauker, Matt Kaminski, digital producer Setota Hailemariam, Alexander Ward, Lara Seligman, Nahal Toosi and editor John Yearwood.
Do you have tips? Chinese-language stories we might have missed? Would you like to contribute to China Watcher or comment on this week’s items? Email us at [email protected].