US and China spar on Asean stage

US and China spar on Asean stage

While all eyes were on Kamala Harris when she visited Southeast Asia last week, China loomed large over the event, partly because the US vice president several times mentioned China in public comments.

In Singapore on Tuesday, Ms Harris charged China with bullying its Southeast Asian neighbours. She reiterated that contention during separate events in Vietnam on Wednesday and Thursday.

It's no secret that the main goal of Ms Harris's trip to Singapore and Vietnam is to reassure regional partners and counter China's growing economic and military influence, no matter how the White House wants to spin it.

In Singapore, she accused China of intimidation in disputed Asian waters, while she underlined the need for Washington to continue pursuing its interests in the region following the turbulent Donald Trump era. Speaking in Hanoi later in the week, she stressed the need to mount pressure on China over its maritime claims and offered to support Vietnam in key areas, including enhanced maritime security to counter Beijing's increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Beijing quickly fired back, with the foreign ministry on Wednesday accusing the US of meddling in regional affairs and disrupting peace. Chinese state media said Ms Harris was seeking to drive a wedge between China and its Asean neighbours.

President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, captured some of the spotlight with a vow to try to hit key economic and social development targets this year, even n the face of aggressive efforts to containing Covid-19.

He stressed the importance of high-quality development and building "prosperous" rural areas, saying industrial development is the top priority of rural revitalisation efforts.

His comments come amid signs that China's V-shaped economic recovery is slowing, with sentiment weighed down by a broad regulatory overhaul of key sectors including education, technology and property. At the same time, restrictions to curb the spreading Delta variant are making consumers more downbeat.

Mr Xi has been promoting "common prosperity" in cities and the countryside by redistributing wealth and driving down income inequality. A week earlier, he outlined plans to target excessive incomes and encourage wealthy groups to give back to society.

Beijing aims to promote equal access to public services and to create more opportunities for all to become wealthy, said Han Wenxiu, a senior official at the central financial and economic affairs commission of the Communist Party of China. People will be encouraged to achieve wealth through hard work and innovation, with income adjustments stepped up by means such as taxation and social security payments.

But reducing inequality does not mean "killing the rich to help the poor", he stressed. Those who "get rich first" should help those behind, but hard work should be encouraged.

Investors are keeping an eye on what they see as a major shift, as the government aggressively pursues reform aimed at cutting cost-of-living pressures at the expense of businesses. The policy shift comes amid rising scrutiny and regulatory crackdowns directed toward big business, particularly China's giant tech firms.

It's interesting to note also just before Ms Harris arrived in Hanoi on Tuesday, Vietnam's prime minister and China's ambassador to Vietnam held a previously unannounced meeting, during which Chinese envoy promised a donation of 2 million Covid vaccines. Despite their longstanding maritime dispute, China is still Vietnam's largest trading partner and Hanoi is heavily reliant on materials and equipment from Beijing for its manufacturing activities.

But ties between Hanoi and Washington have grown closer in the past three decades and Vietnam has quietly endorsed the US' Indo-Pacific strategy. While Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh says Vietnam does not take sides in foreign policy, it clear that Vietnam wants to upgrade its diplomatic relationship with the US but is concerned such a move would upset Beijing.

It will be intriguing to watch how the US-China rivalry will play out in Southeast Asia, as long as we are not forced to chose sides. For Washington, it is essential to engage Southeast Asia as a regional collective with Asean having a key role, rather than appearing to write off some states as beholden to China.

More engagement, particularly with the presence of President Joe Biden himself in regional summits that Washington skipped in recent years, are vital to intensify the US-Asean reconnection for the sake of both sides' mutual interest.

Nareerat Wiriyapong

Acting Asia Focus Editor

Acting Asia Focus Editor

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