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China seeks 'informal meets' with Asean leaders
Publication Date : 11-08-2014
China has proposed hosting informal meetings with Southeast Asian leaders, seeking to improve ties with Asean amid maritime disputes and to counter the United States' influence in the region.
At the Asean Foreign Ministers' meeting in Myanmar over the weekend, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi proposed having an informal leaders' meeting in conjunction with the Boao Forum for Asia, held every April on Hainan Island, and the China-Asean trade fair, held in September in Nanning in Guangxi.
He said it would ensure "leaders have even closer interactions to build up trust, strengthen communication and lead cooperation", reported the official Xinhua news agency yesterday.
China and Asean leaders already meet at the annual Asean-China Summit, which began in 2000 and is held on the sidelines of the Asean Summit in November.
Between 1997 and 1999, leaders of both sides met at yearly informal summits.
Dr Li Mingjiang of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said the move shows China's desire to improve links with Asean and to compete with external powers for influence in the region, especially the US and Japan.
"Chinese decision-makers believe increased interaction at the highest levels would help foster better trust and confidence."
Asean-China ties are under pressure because of territorial disputes in the South China Sea between Beijing and four Southeast Asian nations: the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. Taiwan also has claims in the waters.
Moreover, Beijing is concerned that overtures from the US and Japan in Southeast Asia, through stepped-up defence cooperation, for instance, would erode its strategic influence in the region.
Observers say China might have strategic reasons as well.
"An informal meeting, which would last a day at least, would give more time for interaction and discussions on contentious issues than the Asean-China summit," Sino-Asean expert Xu Liping told The Straits Times.
"Inviting Asean leaders also reflects China's sincerity in building ties with the entire group, not just a few members."
In a reflection of Asean's centrality, its rotating chair hosts the annual joint summits.
Dr Li believes the venue of the proposed meeting also matters in China's calculations.
"If Asean leaders were to travel to China, Asean countries would be perceived as getting closer to China, which would give Beijing political credit."
Possibly also for that reason, China has invited Asean defence ministers for an inaugural informal meeting next year.
Analysts, however, say Wang might have mis-spoken, and China could be picking either the Boao forum or the trade expo for the informal meeting, as two such meetings in a calendar year would be excessive.
Analysts feel some Asean states, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, might not respond favourably, although that might not stop China from going ahead with the proposed meetings.
To garner a better response from Asean states, China should look at fostering a conducive setting so leaders can build personal ties, said Dr Li.
Its agenda should also differ from that of the Asean-China summit by focusing on issues beyond China and Asean, Dr Li added.
"China would have to distinguish the informal meeting from the current summit to make it worthwhile for Asean leaders."
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