“China has noted India’s Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative,” Chinese Foreign Ministry‘s spokesman Zhao Lijian told a media briefing on Tuesday.
He was responding to questions on the 30th Anniversary of ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations which was presided over by President Xi Jinping via video link on Monday.
“I want to stress that China always supports ASEAN centrality in the regional architecture, and supports ASEAN in playing a bigger role in regional and international affairs,” Zhao said when asked to elaborate on the China-ASEAN joint statement’s reference to the strategic Indo-Pacific.
Asked whether China sees any complementarities between India’s Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative and the one which China and ASEAN talked about during Monday’s summit, Zhao declined to elaborate saying “I just made clear China’s position”.
In his address to China’s summit with ASEAN countries comprised of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam on Monday, President Xi said, “joint efforts are needed to safeguard stability in the South China Sea and make it a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.”
“We seek high-quality Belt and Road cooperation with ASEAN and cooperation between the Belt and Road Initiative and the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific,” he said.
Observers noted that this was the first time Xi and China mentioned the term which is seen as an apparent official recognition to the Indo-Pacific concept that gained traction during the previous US President Donald Trump’s Presidency.
In October last year, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told the media here that the “Indo-Pacific strategy proposed by the US is preaching outdated Cold War mentality and preaching confrontation and geopolitical game.”
“It is aimed to uphold the hegemony of the US. This runs counter to the common interest for the region and we urge the US to stop this,” he had said.
Besides figuring in Xi’s speech, the Indo-Pacific prominently figured in the joint statement issued after the China-ASEAN summit on Monday.
“Reaffirming the principles of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), while recognising that it is ASEAN’s independent initiative, being open and inclusive, is intended to enhance ASEAN’s Community building process, and is not aimed at creating new mechanisms or replacing existing one,” the joint statement said.
Significantly, the Indo-Pacific initiative figured prominently in last month’s 18th India-ASEAN summit as well.
In his address to the summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative and ASEAN’s Outlook for the Indo-Pacific are the framework for “our shared vision and mutual cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region”.
A joint statement issued after the India-ASEAN summit said, “REAFFIRMING the objectives and principles of the AOIP, (ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific) which guide ASEAN’s engagement in the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions to promote an IndoPacific region that embraces ASEAN Centrality, openness, transparency, inclusivity, a rules-based framework, good governance, respect for sovereignty, nonintervention, complementarity with existing cooperation frameworks.”
On China’s acknowledgement of the Indo-Pacific concept, observers say it is significant as China always referred to it as Asia-Pacific and rejected any engagement under it.
It was a step forward in one sense that China may find it difficult to oppose the open and free Indo-Pacific initiative as it agreed on its principles.