China unfazed as Asean leaders head to White House

white-house-bendera-china-asean-logo-1PETALING JAYA: China is unperturbed at a string of official visits by leaders of Southeast Asian nations to the White House, including Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak who is scheduled to meet Donald Trump on Tuesday, in light of its increasingly influential status in the region.

A Beijing-based expert on international affairs said China remained undaunted at the visit by Najib, as well as those by Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong and Thai premier Prayuth Chan-ocha who are expected to hold separate discussions with the US president next month.

Their calls to Washington come on the heels of an earlier meeting held there between Vietnam’s premier Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Trump in May.

Vietnam, the first Asean government to be received by Trump since he assumed the US presidency in January, was also the only country to visibly demonstrate consternation at China’s increasingly assertive military incursions in the South China Sea during the 50th Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held in Manila last month.

Cheng Xiaohe, a professor at China’s Renmin University, was quoted by the South China Morning Post (SCMP) today as saying Beijing was likely to be unfazed by the White House meetings involving the Southeast Asian leaders.

He said China was well aware that the countries “have very good traditional relations with the US” and added that they could even help bridge the relations between the two superpowers.

“In fact, Najib and Lee can play a constructive role in bringing China and the United States closer and work out their differences,” Cheng was quoted as saying.

The visits come amid reports that the US and UK plan to conduct more “freedom of navigation” operations in the disputed region of the South China Sea, especially in close proximity of areas controversially claimed by China.

Last month, the navy destroyer USS John S. McCain travelled within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China at Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. It was the third “freedom of navigation” excursion conducted during Trump’s presidency.

The SCMP report also cited Joseph Liow, dean of Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, as stressing that the Southeast Asian leaders wanted the US to put the region under its lens.

“I think ultimately the main objective is to secure some measure of reassurance of American interest in and commitment to the region,” he was quoted as saying.

“Southeast Asia seldom commands much attention in Washington,” Liow added.

“What that means is that greater effort is necessary from regional leaders to ensure that the region is on the radar of American foreign policy discussions.”

A report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) recently said that China had almost completed the construction of more than 20 buildings in seven reclaimed islands at disputed locations across the South China Sea.

The islands were said to be equipped with defence systems, including anti-aircraft and anti-guided missile weapons, and long-distance missile launchers.

China has meanwhile also asserted itself economically by pumping billions into infrastructure projects in various Asean countries, especially under its One Belt One Road initiative.