China Seeks Upgrade of Ties With Asean in Lead-Up to Xi Summit

(Bloomberg) — China wants to upgrade its relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, calling for a special summit next month that President Xi Jinping will attend as the world’s second largest economy seeks to expand its reach in a region where the U.S. is also vying for influence. 

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang delivered the proposal at the Asean-China summit in Brunei on Tuesday, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in remarks delivered during the meeting. 

The upgrade, which formally referred to as a “comprehensive strategic pact,” looks set be more far-reaching than Beijing’s current ties with the bloc and comes just hours ahead of a planned virtual meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Asean. 

Lee was supportive of China’s plan to lift its relationship with Asean as both parties had established “a strong foundation for further cooperation.” Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha was a little more cautious over the proposal, saying that it was important to “maintain durable peace amidst the dynamics of complex regional and international situations” in order to move toward the comprehensive strategic partnership.

Territorial rivalry in the South China Sea between China and several of its Asean neighbors will be stumbling block for any such agreement and it’s not clear if the scope of new Chinese proposal includes maritime matters. More details of the plan could emerge once the Chinese side issues its statement after the event. 

Thailand said during the summit it would like to see relevant Asean-China mechanisms in place, especially negotiations toward an early conclusion of a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea that is “effective, substantive and in accordance with international law,” spokesman Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana said.

Even so, Beijing’s ties with the region advanced last November when 15 countries signed the China-anchored Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. But so far only six nations who signed the deal have ratified it, with at least another three from Asean and one other country needing to ratify it before it can come into force. 

Brunei was the sixth country to ratify earlier this month, after Thailand, Singapore, China, Japan and Cambodia, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. 

China has also declared its interest to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership — a move that Singapore welcomed. The city-state takes over as chair of the CPTPP commission from Japan next year.

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