China reaches out to Asian neighbors after Ukraine’s war causes further tensions with the United States

With the Ukraine crisis putting further pressure on China’s ties to the United States and the West as a whole, Beijing has set its sights on repairing fences with its neighbors.

China’s diplomatic madness over the past two weeks shows the importance of its neighbors in Beijing’s hierarchy of relations, according to observers.

On the heels of a whirlwind tour of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi last week hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who traveled abroad for the first time since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

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Wang also chaired an Afghanistan-focused meeting attended by foreign ministers from Russia, Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The Taliban’s acting foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaki, and the US special envoy to Afghanistan also attended talks in Anhui province on Wednesday.

President Xi Jinping highlighted China’s ambitions for Afghanistan following the chaotic withdrawal of the United States last summer, sending a written message promising Beijing’s continued support for the radical Islamic group and the war-torn country, which it said was on a “critical transition from chaos to order”.

China also welcomed foreign ministers from Thailand, the Philippines, Myanmar and Indonesia, which have this year’s group of 20 presidencies, last week and attended a virtual summit with the EU in Brussels on Friday.

Friday’s visit by Myanmar’s foreign minister U Wunna Maung Lwin was the first in a country outside Asia since the coup that brought the ruling junta to power in February last year, and Wang told his counterpart that China was ready to help the country settle their financial problems. which has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.

Xi has also personally emphasized Beijing’s efforts to garner support from its neighbors and developing countries, as he recently spoke with leaders from Cambodia, Indonesia and South Africa over the phone.

In a rare move, he also reached out to South Korean newly elected President Yoon Suk-yeol twice, including a phone call the day after the election, although Yoon is strongly pro-American and has promised to take a tougher stance on China.

While China started its focal point for Asia after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic over two years ago, analysts said its latest move is largely a response to Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, a perceived US containment strategy towards Beijing.

Wang Yi, right, poses for photos with Amir Khan Muttaqi, acting foreign minister of the Afghan Taliban’s interim government. Photo: AP alt = Wang Yi, right, posing for photos with Amir Khan Muttaqi, acting foreign minister of the Afghan Taliban’s interim government. Photo: AP>

“China has always emphasized and invested heavily in forging ties with its neighbors over the years.

“As Washington makes progress in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly in geopolitical and security terms, Beijing needs to step up its efforts to strengthen and consolidate ties with its peripheral region,” said Li Mingjiang, an associate professor at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Last week, US President Joe Biden told the visiting Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, that the Ukraine crisis would not distract Washington from implementing its Indo-Pacific strategy.

Although a planned White House summit for the leaders of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been postponed due to “planning problems”, Biden said he wanted to ensure the region remains “free and open”, without specifically to mention China.

“From China’s perspective, the growing U.S. involvement in the Indo-Pacific and the consequent changes in the regional geopolitical landscape is alarming,” Li said.

“Washington’s ability to achieve a united front with Europe and NATO over Ukraine and strengthen its alliances in the region, such as the four-way grouping of Quad, which includes Japan, Australia and India, remains a major challenge for China.”

According to a study by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore earlier this year, Washington has gained ground against Beijing in their competition for influence in Southeast Asia over the past year.

In recent weeks, Washington has sought to lure Nepal, a traditional buffer between China and India, with an infrastructure subsidy project, while putting pressure on India over the country’s refusal to condemn Russia, New Delhi’s largest arms supplier.

Wang made surprising visits to both India and Nepal last week despite the two countries’ ongoing territorial disputes with China.

“In a time of increasing superpower competition, which has been exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it makes sense for China to go into diplomatic exaggeration, especially given the United States’ efforts to unite countries against Russia,” Benoit Hardy-Chartrand said. a specialist in international affairs at Temple University in Tokyo.

He noted that the importance of regional diplomacy was not new to Beijing as it has long valued stability close to its borders and worked to strengthen its influence on its periphery.

China’s periphery – and especially Southeast Asia – has long been a place of great power competition between China, the United States and even Japan, according to Hardy-Chartrand.

Tensions between the United States and China continue, and a video meeting between Xi and Biden did little to change the situation.

The United States continues to use sanctions and other measures to target Chinese companies and officials over China’s human rights history and US national security issues, while Beijing blames Washington for its inability to improve relations.

Despite the crisis in Ukraine, Washington has continued to focus on competition with China, warning that Beijing will face “consequences” if it supports Russia’s invasion.

But analysts said the response of Asian countries to Russia’s attacks was also a possibility for China.

While most of these countries voted to condemn Moscow’s invasion of the UN last month, Singapore is the only one in Southeast Asia that joins Western sanctions against Russia, the region’s largest arms supplier.

Huang Jing, director of the Institute of US and Pacific Studies at Shanghai International Studies University, said that while two UN resolutions condemning Russia won overwhelming support from over 140 countries, that does not mean they agree with the Western sanctions.

“With Washington’s attention and resources redirected from the China-focused Indo-Pacific strategy to the Ukraine crisis, it provides some good opportunities for China to increase its influence,” he said.

He said Beijing should seize the opening, especially India’s resentment over pressure from Western countries over its close defensive ties with Russia, to pull it off the Quad.

“While it is almost impossible to fully repair China’s ties with India, Beijing’s priority should be to prevent New Delhi on the side of Washington in the rivalry between the United States and China and the formation of ‘an Asian NATO’ in the Indo-Pacific,” he said. he. with reference to Beijing’s categorization of Quad.

Huang also said it was natural for Beijing to shift its focus to its Asian neighbors given the fall in US-China ties and the sharpened consensus between two parties in Washington.

Biden’s design of the rivalry between the United States and China as a “struggle between democracy and autocracy” has also left no doubt for leaders in Beijing about the prospect of future relations.

Monika Chansoria, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo, said: “The renewed preoccupation with an overburdened United States with European security has apparently given Beijing the strategic space to adapt to the global world order to achieve its own strategic goals.” most importantly, Taiwan. “

But she said Wang’s trip to India, initiated by China, had yielded no tangible results and was “a failed attempt by Beijing to begin portraying that it is back to ‘business as usual'” with India after a deadly border collision in the Galwan Valley two years ago.

“China’s peripheral region senses the looming threat that China is unilaterally trying to change the status quo in the eastern and southern China seas,” Chansoria said. “The region is on guard against Beijing’s widespread expansionism, which is spreading across small, less developed nations in dire need of development aid and assistance.”

Hardy-Chartrand also said it was unclear whether China could overcome “notable obstacles” – including Asean’s insistence on strategic autonomy, Yoon’s pro-US stance and ongoing tensions with Japan – to bolster its influence.

“One of the major challenges is that most countries are reluctant to see China become a regional hegemony and continue to want a strong American presence in the region,” he said.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice that has reported on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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