The ASEAN-China Relationship at 25

The Khmer Times, 17 May 2016

This year marks 25th anniversary of the China-Asean dialogue partnership. Over the past two decades, China has successfully implemented its regional economic integration policy, particularly through the implementation of the China-Asean Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) adopted in 2010.
Since 2009, China has become the world’s leading exporter, surpassing the United States in 2007 and Germany in 2009. China’s trade with Asean countries has increased from $39.5 billion in 2000 to $450 billion in 2015 – making China the leading trading partner of Asean.
By 2020, the bilateral trade volume is expected to reach $1 trillion. China is also a main source of foreign direct investment to Asean after the European Union, the US and Japan.
China has become a key regional development partner and development assistance provider, especially in narrowing the development gaps between the member states of Asean. Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam have greatly benefitted from China’s growing economic prowess.
The introduction of new initiatives such as One Belt One Road (OBOR) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) further boosts China-Asean economic integration through intra-regional infrastructure connectivity, trade and investment facilitation, tourism promotion and educational and cultural exchanges.
Both China and Asean stand to benefit from deepening regional economic integration and connectivity. China is unable to successfully project its global power and role unless Southeast Asia is stable, integrated and developed.
Since the early 1990s, China has benignly 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 to cope with the crisis through both economic and financial measures.
China has also actively engaged in developing trust-based and rules-based regional cooperation.
In 1997, the first Asean-China Summit issued a joint statement highlighting a 21st century-oriented partnership of good neighborliness and mutual trust. In 2003, China acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation to further ensure the peaceful development of China with its neighbors and started to implement a comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Asean.
China is also active in strengthening regional security institutions such as the Asean Regional Forum and the Asean Defence Ministers Meeting Plus. Here, non-traditional security cooperation is the principle 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 and pandemic diseases.
The principle impediment to a deeper relationship between China and Asean is the unresolved complex sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea involving China and four Asean claimant states, Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.
China and Asean share a commitment to not allow tensions in the South China Sea to adversely affect their hard-earned bilateral strategic partnership. But they still need to do more to adjust to the new and dynamic regional security landscape. Of crucial importance is the development of a strategic dividend, which includes trust, confidence, mutual respect and mutual interests.
The conclusion of the Code of Conduct (COC) over the South China Sea will significantly contribute to confidence building measures and preventive diplomacy.
Both Asean and China need to adjust their strategic position and threat perception. A rising China is not a threat to Asean and a united and integrated Asean does not threaten China’s interests.
Through the development and improvement of the Asean-centered regional institutions, the enhancement of strategic transparency and the maintaining of frank and sincere consultation and negotiation at both bilateral and multilateral levels, China and Asean can enhance their strategic dividend.
Otherwise, the region will remain strategically divided, which is in nobody’s interest.
China and Asean need to work together to harmonize regional and sub-regional initiatives such as linking the China-Asean strategic partnership and CAFTA with OBOR, and connect regional initiatives with sub-regional cooperation frameworks, particularly the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) and Greater Mekong Sub-regional Cooperation (GMS).
China needs to invest much more in strengthening people-to-people ties across sectors from government to the private sector and civil society groups. Educational and cultural exchanges are vital to promote the image of China as a “peaceful development.”
Assuming global power status, China needs to bear more responsibility in promoting a rules-based international order and advance its soft power projection in order to attract international support and win peoples’ heart.

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