China has pledged to expand its already deep economic footprint in Southeast Asia as President Xi Jinping this week embarked on his first visit to the region since taking office in March.
Following a two-day stop in Indonesia, Mr. Xi on Thursday travelled to Malaysia, where both countries hailed last month’s launch of a $1-billion port and industrial park expansion project as a sign of deepening Chinese investments in the region.
Mr. Xi arrived in Malaysia on a day when the United States announced that President Barack Obama would call off his visit this month to the country on account of the government shutdown in Washington. The White House said Mr. Obama would not travel to Malaysia and the Philippines, but would likely attend summit meetings in Brunei and Indonesia, including the APEC leaders’ meeting.
The visits by Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi come at a time of renewed focus on competing American and Chinese interests in the Asia-Pacific, following the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia strategy of renewing alliances.
Though China has been looking to widen investments in the region, where it is already the single biggest trading partner for many Asean countries, regional anxieties about China’s increasing assertiveness in maritime disputes have led many countries, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, to pursue closer security ties with Washington.
While some U.S. media expressed concern that the “pivot” was the latest casualty of the shutdown, Chinese media hailed growing economic ties with the region.
State media outlets in Beijing did not miss the opportunity to underline the contrast. The official Xinhua news agency, in a commentary on Thursday, described the shutdown as “exposing again the ugly side of partisan politics in Washington”. “The United States, the world’s sole superpower, has engaged in irresponsible spending for years,” the commentary said. It has also marked Mr.Xi’s visit by launching a special section on its website highlighting China’s economic ties to the region.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, in an interview with Xinhua, said his government “welcomes more Chinese investment”. Last month, the Prime Minister launched the expansion of the Kuantan Port project, undertaken through a joint venture between Malaysia’s IJM Corporation and China’s Guangxi Beibu Port Group. State broadcaster China Central Television said in a Thursday report the Chinese firm had taken a 40-per-cent stake in the plan, and would invest $1 billion in the project.
China has been Malaysia’s biggest trading partner for four straight years, with trade reaching $ 94.8 billion last year, or one-fourth of China’s total trade with Asean, Xinhua reported. Trade with Indonesia has risen by four times since 2005, reaching $ 66 billion.
Despite growing trade, China’s recent assertiveness over maritime disputes in the South China Sea has cast a cloud on Beijing’s regional ties — an issue expected to figure prominently during this week’s regional meetings. In an address to Indonesia’s members of Parliament — the first by a foreign leader — Mr. Xi did not appear to offer any new approach to the disputes. China has rejected calls from several Asean countries to negotiate multilaterally over the South China Sea’s waters and islands, which are being contested by more than 10 countries.
“As for the disagreements and disputes between China and certain Southeast Asian nations on territorial sovereignty and maritime rights, both sides must always uphold the use of peaceful methods...to maintain the broad picture of bilateral relations and regional stability,” he was quoted as saying by Reuters.
A joint statement issued following his meeting with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono did not indicate any progress on the issue of adopting a code of conduct, only saying the two leaders “agreed to work toward the eventual adoption of a code of conduct in the South China Sea”.