The 12th National People’s Congress of China brought about some important announcements regarding China’s foreign policy directions. Given the recent troubles in the region, China aimed to send out a positive message to its neighbours. Much of the messages and the principles behind them are not completely new, but were part of the Chinese government white paper titled “China-Asia Pacific Cooperation Policy” that was published in January 2017. Even the elephant in the room, the United States, was painted in a positive light by the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. When asked by journalists about the future of Sino-US relationship, Wang replied that he believe there is significant room for improving the relationship between the two of the world’s largest economies and China can look forward to working with President Donald Trump.
In an official press conference, Wang announced that China’s relationship with the Philippines has now “moved into the correct path” after the 180-degree turn bought by the Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte. Since coming to office, President Duterte has dramatically toned down the Philippines’ territorial dispute with China. Wang reported that China would support the Philippines with further investment projects and also diplomatically, by supporting the Philippines during its time as the chair of ASEAN.
Wang Yi also announced a host of diplomatic initiatives towards the countries of Southeast Asia in light of an “improved relationship” between them. Among the new and old initiatives that were announced, the management of the Mekong River is prioritized. Wang announced plans for a permanent secretariat to the cooperative venture that also includes Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Wang also announced the tie-in of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement with ASEAN integration in order to support the success of the ASEAN Economic Community. RCEP is China’s regional free trade agreement and seen by many as China’s response to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Furthermore, Wang also announced that work has begun on drafting a framework for the long-stalled Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. The Code of Conduct was an agreement of general principles that was first drafted in 2012, but little progress has been made on it since. The Code of Conduct was often criticized as a paper without much substance behind it, as all of the regional actors seemed to disregard its guidelines almost before the ink had dried. The Philippines’ Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay stated that he hopes the draft can be finalized by the middle of 2017 to lower tensions in the region.
Whether China’s neighbours are assured by Wang Yi’s message is another matter. While China claims to have made great strides with negotiating with ASEAN countries, at best the conflict in the South China Sea is frozen rather than solved. With no country apparently willing to compromise on their territorial claims, it would only be a matter of time before the conflict surfaces again. Furthermore, many previous announcements of “breakthroughs” in China-ASEAN negotiations have proven to be illusionary. While the world is right to be cautious if this is yet another false alarm, it should also be hopeful that, at a minimum, tensions in the region can be reduced to avoid an arms race that would be detrimental to the rest of the world.