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Opinions of Sunday, 26 September 2021

Columnist: Molefi Asante

The foreign trips with deeper meanings between US and China

Chinese President Xi Jinping with his US counterpart Joe Biden Chinese President Xi Jinping with his US counterpart Joe Biden

China is worried about the US plan to recalibrate its foreign policy post troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. China has been keeping a close watch on the high profile foreign trips by US top officials or foreign envoys’ trips to the far East.

US Vice President Kamala Harris and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s recent visits to Vietnam prompted Beijing to plan a tour to Asian countries. It wants to strengthen ties with friendly and not so friendly countries so that it can prevent them from tilting toward the United States.

The visit to Vietnam came amid intense rivalry between the world’s two biggest economies. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi recently visited Vietnam with which Beijing has a territorial dispute in the South China Sea. China which does not have much friendly terms with Vietnam had avoided visiting Vietnam twice including in Jan 2021 due to "growing antagonism and tensions between the old Communist allies" over their South China Sea dispute.

Analysts believed that tension was compounded by the US factor and uncertainties over internal power politics in Hanoi. Sensing that things may go out of hand, Wang in his meeting with Vietnam leaders, affirmed that his country attaches great importance to the friendly neighbourliness and comprehensive cooperation with their Vietnamese counterparts. China also agreed to assist Vietnam with 3 million doses of vaccine.

Except Vietnam, Wang had visited all the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in October last year and in January this year. But aggressive overtures by Washington compelled China to visit Vietnam and normalise relations. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited in July, followed by Harris in August. They also visited Singapore.

Wang’s visit to Singapore was seen as a pushback against Washington’s efforts to reassert its influence in the region Wang held talks with Singaporean leader Lee Hsien Loong. It may be mentioned here that while in Singapore, Harris had called out Beijing for continuing "to coerce, to intimidate, and to make claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea."

In Cambodia, China announced to provide assistance to Cambodia with a grant aid of 272 million US dollars. China is Cambodia’s biggest investor and closest political partner whose assistance largely underpins the Southeast Asian nation’s economy. It is not clear what the aid would be used for. China has offered assistance for the construction of more than 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) of roads and seven big bridges across the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers. It has sold and donated vaccines to Cambodia during the pandemic.

Wang called for "mutual respect" regarding the two countries' different interests during a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and added China and South Korea have been in different situations, but both countries so far have each been supporting the development paths that the other has chosen and paid respect to each other's key interests. Wang urged Moon that they should maintain this good tradition in the future as it will be an important factor in developing healthy bilateral relations. China and South Korea have different interests amidst the rivalry between Washington and Beijing, and as pressure on Seoul to "respect" a more assertive China in the future.

China is deeply disturbed by the idea of expanding the US-led "Five Eyes" intelligence alliance. The alliance is made up of the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, to include South Korea, Wang’s remarks that the intelligence-sharing agreement was a "byproduct of the Cold War era" and "completely outdated,", is reflective of China’s concern of Five Eyes.

China has been smartly using North Korea issue to weaken US influence on South Korea as it has been pursuing a "freeze-for-freeze" plan, in which South Korea and the US agree to stop their combined military exercises and the North agrees to discontinue its missile and nuclear weapon programs. This is part of Beijing's strategy to pressurise South Korea not to get closer to the US.