China needs ‘lose-win’ diplomacy in ASEAN

Scanning the regional landscape on November 3, South-east Asian states ought to be quite optimistic about the state of ASEAN-China relations just as the year closes on the 25th anniversary of the establishment of their dialogue partnership. ASEAN and China have agreed to a series of confidence-building measures to lower the temperature on the South China Sea issue. The Philippines, after years of sabre-rattling with China, now appears to be embracing Beijing just as Manila is about to take up the ASEAN chairmanship. And a range of Chinese-led economic initiatives that benefit the region are being rolled out. The prospects for “win-win cooperation”, as the Chinese like to term it, seem to be quite bright. Yet speaking to some other South-east Asian participants in Beijing for the seventh Xiangshan Forum last month, this was far from the case. Several of them conveyed the same feeling one gets travelling around South-east Asian capitals on November 3: a palpable uncertainty about China’s rising capabilities, dubiousness about its true intent, and fear as to how Beijing may misinterpret major shifts – including Manila’s apparent pivot – as indicating the wisdom of its current course rather than its follies. South-east Asian countries may be gaining to varying degrees, but they certainly do not feel like they are winning.

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