This year marks the 10th anniversary of the China-ASEAN strategic partnership. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, visited the ASEAN Secretariat and four ASEAN member countries to strengthen mutual understanding, strategic trust, and demonstrate support for ASEAN community building. Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan visited Brunei for a consultative meeting with the ten ASEAN Defense Ministers on the sidelines of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) to exchange views on regional security issues and to discuss measures for reducing tensions in the region, particularly in the South China Sea. However, there is still a long way to go, with greater investments in strategic trust and confidence required from China for a true partnership with ASEAN to take place.
The US rebalance to Asia and the role of other rising middle powers in the region has challenged China’s role in the region. China’s 2013 Defense White Paper states that “The Asia-Pacific region has become an increasingly significant stage for world economic development and strategic interaction between major powers. The US is adjusting its Asia-Pacific security strategy, and the regional landscape is undergoing profound changes.” Within such a changing political and strategic context, China needs to review and redefine its regional strategy by enhancing and nurturing regional dialogue and consultation with regional institutions.
China has successfully implemented its soft power policy in the region. Since the 1990s, China has approached Southeast Asia through deepening economic ties, development cooperation and cultural diplomacy. During the Asian Financial crisis in 1997, China did not depreciate its currency; instead, China helped regional countries manage the crisis through both economic and fiscal policies. Furthermore, China is rapidly becoming the key development partner and assistance provider especially in lesser developed countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
The ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA), which came into force in 2010, is a milestone regional trade arrangement to deepen economic ties resulting in China becoming the key trade partner for ASEAN. In 2012, bilateral trade between China and ASEAN was valued at $400 billion with bilateral investment valued at S100 billion. As a result, China is rapidly emerging to become the key investor in Southeast Asia, with Chinese direct investment into the region during 2011 valued at $7 billion.
On the cultural front, China has provided scholarships and training opportunities to students and government officials from ASEAN member countries. Furthermore, the ethnic Chinese community living in Southeast Asia has played an important role in connecting cultural and business ties to mainland China. There are an estimated 25 million ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, about 5 percent of the total population of Southeast Asia.
On the diplomatic and political cooperation fronts, China has been actively engaged in developing trust and rules based regional relations. China became a dialogue partner of ASEAN in 1996, and by December of the following year, the first ASEAN-China Summit issued a joint statement highlighting a 21st century-oriented partnership of good neighborliness and mutual trust. In 2002, China and ASEAN signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in order to build maritime trust and confidence. In 2003, China acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) to further facilitate the peaceful rise of China. In 2011, China and ASEAN agreed to implement fully the DOC and work together towards implementation of an actual Code of Conduct. In 2012, they adopted a six-point statement on the South China Sea, and are currently discussing the key elements of a future Code of Conduct.
In terms of defense and security cooperation, China is active in strengthening regional security institutions such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus). Non-traditional security cooperation is the key area of cooperation between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors. China has supported regional countries in capacity building and collectively addressing human security issues such as natural disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, transnational crimes, terrorism and maritime security.
However, China needs to work much harder to earn strategic trust within Southeast Asia; without which, China may face huge challenges in projecting its power to a wider Asia Pacific region and the world at large. China’s maritime power projection and marine economy, together with the increasing assertiveness and presence of Chinese civilian and military forces in the South China Sea, remain a key concern for the other claimants, particularly for the Philippines and Vietnam.
The increasing tension in the South China Sea and Chinese threat perception in some corners of the Southeast Asian region can further breed strategic distrust and potentially derail the well-established good relationships between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors. Without effectively addressing those challenges, China may lose certain strategic advantages to other major powers in establishing and enlarging strategic and economic space in the region.
Both China and ASEAN member countries share a common view in not allowing the tensions in the South China Sea to negatively affect their bilateral relations and the ASEAN-China comprehensive strategic partnership in general. Nevertheless, China and ASEAN need to do more in adjusting to a new and dynamic regional security landscape through creating an accommodative strategic approaches and harmonizing national and regional interests.
Peace and development remain the guiding principles for international relations in the region. However, for a truly comprehensive strategic partnership between China and ASEAN there has to more investment in expanding strategic capital, which includes trust, confidence, comfort, mutual respect and interests. China is one of the most important dialogue partners of ASEAN. China has done many great things in maintaining and strengthening peace, stability, development, and regional community building. However, China needs to prove its regional leadership by continuing to work closely and effectively with its neighbors to cope with rather than to avoid certain sensitive issues.
Through the development and improvement of the ASEAN centered regional institutions, and the maintaining of a frank and sincere consultation and negotiation at both bilateral and multilateral levels, China and ASEAN can enhance their strategic capital and realize their common interests. Otherwise, the region will be further strategically divided- which serves no one’s interest.