Chinese state media have negatively portrayed Washington’s recent moves to court ASEAN diplomatically and economically, but the one-sided narrative that Beijing trots out belies the region’s careful reception of both great powers amidst their growing rivalry.
The last weeks of May witnessed important milestones in America’s Asia policy. U.S. President Joseph R. Biden hosted the ASEAN-U.S. Special Summit on 12-13 May 2022 and a week later, made his first presidential trip to Asia where he announced the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). Among IPEF’s 14 inaugural members, seven hail from ASEAN – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. As Southeast Asia becomes a key arena of U.S.-Sino strategic competition, how is Beijing reacting to Washington’s latest charm offensives toward the region?
In their coverage of Washington’s overtures, the overall tone of China’s state media outlets – including China Daily, Guangming Daily, The Global Times, and China Global Television Network (CGTN) – is combative and dismissive. Even though Chinese media recognised that ‘China and the United States can share a common circle of friends’ in the region, their commentaries offered a sinister reading of American ulterior motives behind Biden’s high-level engagements with ASEAN. They viewed his moves as being driven by a ‘new Cold War’ mentality aimed at countering China’s rise by forcing regional states to ‘decouple’ from China. They also perceived IPEF as an extension of American neo-colonialism and hegemony in the Indo-Pacific, where regional states are ‘subordinated to and dependent on the U.S. and other former colonial powers’ by serving as ‘their reservoirs of cheap labour and raw materials’.
Moreover, Chinese media exuded confidence that no matter how hard Washington tries to win the hearts and minds of ASEAN leaders, this will be of little effect in altering the upward trajectory of ASEAN-China cooperation. They see Washington’s charm offensives toward ASEAN as futile for four key reasons.
First, the Chinese media assert that Washington has not taken its relationship with ASEAN seriously in its foreign policy agenda. As an example, Biden’s commitment to provide ASEAN with US$150 million in development assistance is a tiny fraction of the US$40 billion aid package that Washington recently approved for Ukraine. The Chinese media claimed that Beijing has always prioritised ASEAN in its diplomacy, as evidenced by its pledge of US$1.5 billion in assistance over the next three years to support ASEAN countries’ pandemic response and economic recovery.
Second, the Chinese media pointed out the lack of tangible economic incentives in IPEF, particularly market access and tariff exemptions, criticising IPEF as a geopolitical tool serving American interests rather than a free trade agreement. In contrast, they highlighted China’s comparative economic advantages over the U.S., given the former’s centrality in regional supply chains, China’s solid status as ASEAN’s largest trading partner and its massive infrastructure financing via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In an article, The Global Times confidently pronounced that the U.S. would not be able to ‘dominate the regional industrial chain to achieve its strategic goals’ due to the decline of its manufacturing industry.
But it is only one side of the coin, the other being that ASEAN countries still crave for America’s sustained economic and security presence in the region for a balance of influence and power.
Third, the Chinese media declared that China sought to rally ASEAN around the principles of openness and inclusiveness in economic relations and warned that IPEF would create economic ‘small circles’ that are exclusive and confrontational. The media asserted that given China’s economic influence, none of IPEF’s key pillars – digitalisation, supply chains, and clean energy – could develop without China. The Global Times even wrote that IPEF may damage ASEAN cohesion and centrality because the new framework would allow the U.S. to impose standards on digital economy, labour rights, and environmental protection that were unsuitable for developing countries and that this might ‘lead to chaos in the market, and even divergence within the ASEAN bloc’.
Fourth, the media conveyed that Beijing was satisfied with ASEAN’s cautious and non-aligned approach to sensitive security issues. For example, a commentary on Guangming Daily – a major mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party – cited the joint decision of Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to three important meetings in November 2022 – the ASEAN and related Summits, the G-20 Summit, and the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting – despite Western pressures prior to the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit as evidence of ASEAN’s impartial stance on the Russia-Ukraine war. Another commentary from Guangming Daily noted that ASEAN countries ‘did not touch upon the red line and adopt strongly “American’ language” on the South China Sea dispute’ in the joint statement of the Special Summit. It also noted that there was no mention of the Russia-Ukraine war in the joint statement, which indicates the ‘consistency of ASEAN’s neutral stance’.
Chinese media narratives of Washington’s engagement with ASEAN tend to adopt a dichotomous ‘Us’ (China and ASEAN) versus ‘Other’ (the U.S. and its allies) viewpoint and are worded in moralistic terms. On 22 May 2022, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi remarked that the Indo-Pacific strategy was ‘doomed to fail’ since its essential goal is to ‘create divisions, incite confrontations, and sabotage peace’. China tries to portray itself as a ‘builder of global peace, contributor to global development and defender of international order’ that harbours no geopolitical agenda, respects ASEAN centrality, and promotes shared prosperity. China also vows to ‘deepen reform internally’ and ‘expand openness externally’ to foil American attempts to isolate China.
China’s confidence that ASEAN countries would not simply do Washington’s bidding amidst the U.S.-China strategic rivalry is not ungrounded. But it is only one side of the coin, the other being that ASEAN countries still crave for America’s sustained economic and security presence in the region for a balance of influence and power. The U.S. has committed to establishing a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with ASEAN, while the Special Summit joint statement highlighted the convergence between the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and the U.S.’s Indo-Pacific Strategy on ‘relevant fundamental principles in promoting an open, inclusive, and rules-based regional architecture’. China’s narratives demonising the U.S. while portraying itself as a benevolent power may be self-gratifying but will not gain much currency among ASEAN states.
Wang Zheng was a Wang Gungwu Visiting Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. He is currently a PhD Candidate at the University at Albany, SUNY.