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September 27, 2017

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China's influence continues to grow in ASEAN

KUALA LUMPUR -- China has deepened its influence on ASEAN nations, and the just-concluded ASEAN Summit with its chairman's watered-down statement stands testimony to this.

This China factor — coming on the back of Beijing's huge investments in the region, as well as more intense diplomatic activity in the region, may continue to feature prominently in future ASEAN meetings — at least for this year.

China is currently the biggest trading partner of most of the ASEN members, and their biggest or significant investor.

The outcome of the recent meeting of the 10 top leaders of ASEAN — Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam — shows the majority wanted a nonconfrontational approach towards the Middle Kingdom on the South China Sea issue.

Before the April 28-29 ASEAN Summit, there were expectations that most ASEAN heads of state would raise concerns over China's conduct in the disputed waters of South China Sea.

China is claiming most of the energy-rich South China Sea, through which about US$5 trillion worth of trade passes every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as Taiwan, also have sovereign claims.

But in recent months, China has not only built reefs and structures in several parts of the disputed area, it has also installed military facilities there, according to reports citing satellite images.

Due to a growing Sino-Philippine rapprochement, few expected Rodrigo Duterte — the Philippines president who is the rotating chairman of ASEAN this year — to take a tough stance on the South China Sea disputes.

However, it was unacceptable to many to see the removal of the term "serious concern" from the final chairman's statement after the conclusion of the summit. These words reportedly had appeared in previous ASEAN pronouncements.

"China's influence in ASEAN has increased, but this is expected. However, ASEAN chairing country does have an important role shaping the outcome of summits and meetings," says Ngeow Chow Bing, deputy director of Institute of China Studies, Universiti Malaya.

"If the chairman decides not to pursue a certain stand or posture, this will be reflected in the outcome. Given that under Duterte, a new, more conciliatory policy has taken shape in the Philippines, this outcome is something not too surprising for us," he tells Sunday Star.

Since becoming president last year, Duterte has reoriented Philippine's foreign policy. He is working on rebuilding Sino-Filipino ties to bring in Chinese investments into his country, after a five-year hiatus.

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