Xi Jinping: Who, us? We're not trying to bully anyone

Ju Peng/Xinhua via AP

The 30th annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is underway this week and one of the first featured speakers was President Xi Jinping of China. During a virtual teleconference, Xi took a very different tone than we’ve heard from him in recent months, seeking to assure the other members of the group that China has no intention of trying to “dominate” Southeast Asia or to “bully” their smaller neighbors. He reportedly managed to deliver those remarks with a straight face, which is rather remarkable to begin with. Notably absent from the meeting was a representative from Myanmar since its militarily installed current government is widely unrecognized as being official. Apparently, Hong Kong was unavailable for comment. (Associated Press)

Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Monday said his country will not seek dominance over Southeast Asia or bully its smaller neighbors, amid ongoing friction over the South China Sea.

Xi made the remarks during a virtual conference with the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, held to mark the 30th anniversary of relations between China and the grouping.

Two diplomats said ASEAN member Myanmar was not represented at Monday’s meeting after its military-installed government refused to allow an ASEAN envoy to meet with ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other arrested politicians. Military ruler Gen. Min Aung Hlaing was also barred from representing his country at the last ASEAN summit.

Xi went on to say that his nation “resolutely opposes hegemonism and power politics” and has no interest in dominating its neighbors. As the linked report notes, the speech came only two days after Chinese naval vessels turned powerful water cannons on a pair of Philippine boats that were carrying troops and supplies to a disputed shoal in the South China Sea. The vessels were forced to turn back. This inconvenient fact was brought up by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during his own opening remarks.

“We abhor the recent event in the Ayungin Shoal and view with grave concern other similar developments. This does not speak well of the relations between our nations and our partnership,” Duterte said, according to a statement from his office.

Somewhat ironically, at the same time that Xi was making all of these warm and cozy remarks to the ASEAN members, his Foreign Ministry spokesperson was giving a media briefing where he said China rejects a 2016 Hague arbitration ruling saying that China’s claims to all of the rocky outcroppings in the South China Sea (and thereby the “territorial waters” surrounding them) were invalid. He also repeated his demands for any Phillippine personnel or vessels to be removed from the disputed shoal.

I suppose this appearance is par for the course when it comes to China. They generally try to paint a positive face on current events and make demands of other nations to be “respectful and civil” while they act in the complete opposite fashion themselves. You’ll notice that Xi wasn’t making any mention of the fact that they have effectively imploded the government of Hong Kong and imposed their own version of “order” in the city. Nor was there any talk of all of the fighter jet sorties that have been crossing into Taiwan’s airspace for the past couple of months.

We’ve seen some recent diplomatic activity involving Australia and some of the other ASEAN nations brokering agreements to create a buttress against China’s expanding military and economic power. I would guess that Xi is trying to issue some calming words in the hope of reversing this trend. We shouldn’t expect him to have very much luck with that. The Chinese Communist Party represents one of the most significant threats facing the world at the moment, and more countries are waking up to that fact. A few soothing words from Xi Jinping during a conference all aren’t going to alter that reality.