Riding the dragon
US-China relations might become more civil but the rivalry will be no less intense, and that is a worry for Asean countries.
The growing economic and political influence of China has challenged the powerful nations of the West, particularly the United States, to respond in new ways.
As Beijing develops closer economic and political partnerships with countries from Africa to Central and Southeast Asia, Washington has been compelled to re-examine its entire approach to foreign policy and diplomacy, say experts.
Under the administration of former president Donald Trump, the relationship between the US and China turned rocky, marked by a protracted trade war, with threats and bluster from both sides substituting for diplomacy.
When Joe Biden took office this year, observers expected the relationship to be repaired -- up to a point. They pointed to his choice of Kurt Campbell, an architect of Barack Obama's "pivot" to Asia, as the new "Indo-Pacific coordinator".
However, Mr Biden is under no illusions about the challenges his country faces. Addressing a group of US senators after speaking with President Xi Jinping in February, Mr Biden said Beijing was vastly outspending the United States on infrastructure and other key areas of the economy. "If we don't get moving, they are going to eat our lunch," he said.
For now, Mr Biden is willing to trust professional diplomats to get the relationship with Beijing back on track, though there will continue to be a spirited rivalry.
China's new coast guard law "is misunderstood and wrongly interpreted by some countries", says Wu Shicun, president of the China Institute of South China Sea Studies.
"I would characterise the group that is dealing with US-China issues as very principled, pragmatic and practised," Craig Allen, president of the US-China Business Council, told a recent online panel, "China Conference: Southeast Asia", held by the South China Morning Post.
That team faced its first big test last month when Washington and Beijing met halfway -- in Anchorage, Alaska -- for their first high-level talks since Mr Biden took office.
"The face-off between the two countries was more direct and intense," Asst Prof Pongphisoot Busbarat, a political science lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, told Asia Focus.
"China is telling the US that it's ready to fight in this strategic competition."
Beijing has also signalled the issues on which it will not compromise, including domestic affairs and the so-called values the West upholds, he added.
Yang Jiechi, a veteran Chinese diplomat who headed the Chinese delegation in Alaska, offered a blunt response to the "deep concerns" expressed by Washington about Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
"They are an inalienable part of China's territory" and "China is firmly opposed to US interference in China's internal affairs", said Mr Yang, who was the Chinese ambassador to the US from 2001-05 and foreign minister from 2007-13.
"China doesn't see human rights and democracy as universal values," Mr Pongphisoot said, noting Mr Yang's comment that the US and the western world do not represent global public opinion or universal values.
When it comes to economic relations in the region, "China has the upper hand", said Mr Pongphisoot. Mr Yang, he said, was quick to point out that while Japan and South Korea are major US allies, they are also China's second- and third-largest trading partners. Asean, meanwhile, has now overtaken the US and Europe to become its largest trading partner.
Changing trading patterns mean that China can claim a deeper relationship with these countries than America can, said Mr Pongphisoot. So if the US wants to pressure China via its allies, it has to consider that these countries are also reliant on the Chinese economy.
He also pointed out that the rebukes and tough talk from Chinese officials were intended not only for the ears of Americans but also for the audience at home. Beijing wants its people to see the strength of the Chinese Communist Party.
Meanwhile, a relatively new alliance known as the Quad -- the US, India, Japan and Australia -- also held its first leader-level meeting last month. Initiated in 2007 by then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, as it's formally known, emerged as a response to China's growing assertiveness in Asia.
Members called for greater cooperation on Covid-19, climate change and regional security challenges, according to a statement released by the White House. They also stressed their commitment to promote "a free, open rules-based order, rooted in international law" in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.
Members of the Quad, aware of the intensifying competition for influence in Southeast Asia, also affirmed their support for the centrality of Asean in determining the destiny of the region.
Just days after the Quad meeting, China stepped up its engagement in the region by inviting representatives from four Asean countries -- Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines -- to talks in Fujian.
The two developments make clear that diplomatic activities in the region will increase in the future, Mr Pongphisoot said.
President Joe Biden's new diplomatic team is "very principled, pragmatic and practised", says Craig Allen, president of the US-China Business Council.
While President Biden has signalled a different approach to China than his predecessor took, he has acknowledged that it will be an "extreme competition".
"I think the first job that President Xi and President Biden have accomplished is to set the foundation for the relationship," said Mr Allen, referring to the first phone call between the two leaders.
Part of that fundamental relationship, he said, is Washington's continuing acknowledgement of the "One China" policy. In short, neither side will support any change in status for Taiwan.
In Mr Allen's view, once the groundwork is set, there are many areas of possible collaboration to explore. These include public health, especially in light of the Covid pandemic, and climate change.
The United States is preparing to host a virtual climate summit this Thursday and Friday, with President Xi among the 40 leaders who will participate.
However, Mr Allen believes trade and economic engagement might take a little longer, as he sensed "no urgency" on either aide to "make a dramatic shift". Some experts speculate that the Biden administration is reluctant to ditch all of Mr Trump's policies, as long as a hard line on trade serves a useful purpose for Washington.
"The most important U-turn that the Biden administration needs to make is to actually press the pause button on the geopolitical contest and work out a long-term strategy," said Kishore Mahbubani, a distinguished fellow with the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore.
The trade war, for example, not only is having "no impact" on China but "it has not changed the course of China's actions or behaviour in any significant way," he said at the panel discussion.
China's trade surplus last December set a single-month record of US$78.2 billion, thanks to a surge in exports of healthcare products and work-from-home technology. For the whole year, its overall trade surplus was $535 billion, up 27% from 2019. Its surplus with the US alone was $317 billion, up 9%.
If a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea is agreed on, it must not be "just another piece of paper", says Dino Patti Djalal, former ambassador of Indonesia to the United States.
HANDLE WITH CARE
For 12 consecutive years, China has been Asean's largest trading partner thanks in large part to a bilateral trade agreement. Asean last year became China's largest trading partner for the first time. Bilateral trade has jumped from $443.6 billion in 2013 to $684.6 billion in 2020.
"The level of interdependence (between the two regions) has grown dramatically and both sides can actually benefit from growing together, especially under the umbrella of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)," Mr Mahbubani said.
However, given that some Asean members are seen as client states of China, he believes it's time for the two sides "to step back and do a long-term assessment of the relationship".
Mr Mahbubani likened Asean to a delicate vase -- "very beautiful, (yet) very easy to break". China has to handle it very carefully, especially now that Asean countries are facing internal challenges -- from the coup in Myanmar to pro-democracy demonstrations in Thailand and messy politics in Malaysia.
"I don't think China is overjoyed about having the coup in Myanmar because one thing the Chinese really want all around their borders is stability and peace," he said, noting that Beijing backed a UN Security Council statement calling for a reversal of the coup.
Unlike western countries though, "it is not in China's nature to … impose sanctions", Mr Mahbubani pointed out. In his view, "sanctions never change any country" and "diplomacy and persuasion are both far more effective" when dealing a situation like that of Myanmar.
When it comes to dealing with China, Asean countries would do well to emulate Vietnam, he said. Hanoi is not afraid to stand up to Beijing when it's being unreasonable, while in some areas, it gets along well with its huge neighbour.
The "handle with care" advice applies equally to the United States, as Southeast Asian nations don't want to be sucked in to the superpower rivalry.
The message Asean has sent is very clear -- "don't force us to choose" -- as it wants good relations with the US as well as its closer neighbour, Mr Mahbubani said.
That said, Asean countries "have to learn a very high degree of diplomatic dexterity dealing with these two elephants that have begun to jostle with each other", he added.
"China is telling the US that it's ready to fight in this strategic competition," says Pongphisoot Busbarat, a political science lecturer at Chulalongkorn University.
Diplomacy has been tested in the extreme when it comes to the South China Sea, vast tracts of which are claimed by China. That puts it at odds with Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia.
From both a legal and practical perspective, "I think the situation in the South China Sea will not cool down at all," said Pham Ngoc Minh Trang, a lecturer in the faculty of international relations at Vietnam National University.
Japan, which has its own maritime disputes with China, recently sent a note to the United Nations, rejecting China's version of territorial sea boundaries.
"There are more and more parties outside the region participating in the legal battles," said Ms Pham, adding that this could ignite more debate at the UN.
Having already militarised parts of the South China Sea, China upped the ante in February with the passage of a new Coast Guard Law. It authorises Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessels to "take all necessary measures" including the use of weapons to stop violations of Chinese "sovereignty".
Kishore Mahbubani, distinguished fellow, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.
Ground zero is now Whitsun Reef, an area claimed by the Philippines where 220 Chinese vessels have been anchored in menacing formations since February. An International Law of the Sea tribunal in The Hague sided with Manila in 2016, ruling that China's claims of historic rights in the area lacked any legal foundation, but Beijing has refused to recognise the ruling.
"The (coast guard) law is misunderstood and wrongly interpreted by some countries," argued Wu Shicun, president of the China Institute of South China Sea Studies, a think tank affiliated with the Foreign Ministry and the State Oceanic Administration.
The law, he said, "is essential for the CCG to better perform its duties and obligations and the international treaties that China is part of".
Despite Beijing's claim that the law is primarily domestic in nature, Ms Pham said other claimants and non-claimants have justifiable worries. Beijing might believe its interpretation of "sovereignty" could extend to the "nine-dash line" that it has drawn around most of the sea, even though the Hague tribunal dismissed it as a fiction.
The law also says Chinese aircraft could hold exercises in the airspace above China's claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
"The language of the coast guard law … (is) becoming more aggressive," said Ms Pham, adding that the term "necessary measure", which usually means "using force" is used repeatedly.
The law also allows the Coast Guard to fire on foreign ships or warships without warning if it perceives a threat.
"I think the situation in the South China Sea will not cool down at all," says Pham Ngoc Minh Trang, a lecturer in international relations at Vietnam National University.
Asean and China have been attempting to agree on a legal framework for the disputed waters since 2002. They had hoped to agree on a so-called Code of Conduct (CoC) this year but the pandemic has slowed the process, which might now take until 2022 or 2023, if not later.
"Code of Conduct negotiations are very important because it's the only forum where things related to confidence-building and avoiding unwanted incidents and the rules of the game are being discussed and negotiated, and hopefully in a binding agreement," said Dino Patti Djalal, Indonesia's former ambassador to the US.
If and when the Code is approved, he stressed, "it has to be able to alter the shape of events on the ground".
"There's always a risk that it becomes another piece of paper or it's not going to be implemented as fully as it should," he said, acknowledging that the original Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed in 2002 has not fulfilled its mission of building trust and preventing friction.
"We should guard against that and make sure it's a really ambitious but also effective and realistic code of conduct."