After China’s Premier Li Keqiang outlined his new policy approach in front of Asean members in Bandar Seri Begawan in October 2013 - known as the “two plus seven” cooperative framework - nobody predicted it would then be shelved.
Only in recent months have China’s comprehensive initiatives been revisited by Asean members. In Vientiane, senior officials from China and Asean are currently taking stock of developments and achievements since China attended the first Asean meeting in Kuala Lumpur in 1991. They have another week or so to prepare for a joint statement to commemorate the 25th anniversary of relations. On September 7, leaders from Asean and China will meet for the 19th time. They must have something meaningful and substantive to look forward to in their increasingly complex relations.
It was unfortunate that the 2013 framework was overshadowed by rising tensions in the South China Sea. Central to the new approach was a two-point consensus. The first dealt with “deeper strategic trust and good neighbourliness” and the second on “strengthening economic development and expanding mutual benefit”. These two overarching principles should have laid the groundwork for cooperation between the two sides, especially that mentioned in the seven-point proposal, which is now beginning to bear fruit – such as the Asean Infrastructure Investment Bank.
For the past 25 years, Asean-China relations have been multi-dimensional – including politics and security as well as the social and cultural fields – but the success stories have been concentrated in economic relations. Obviously, every statistic on trade and investment shows remarkable progress and potential. In 1991, bilateral trade was only US$7.96 billion (Bt276 billion) but since then it has increased meteorically. Last year, bilateral trade reached $472.16 billion, a nearly 60-fold increase, or 18.5 per cent annualised. China’s investment in Asean was even more mind-boggling – from a mere $500 million in 1991 to $160 billion last year. Obviously, China-Asean economic ties will remain the cornerstone of the overall friendship. But in the foreseeable future, both parties will be more strategic and integrated with both the domestic and regional environment and programmes. Improved governance and regulatory processes will feature more prominently. For instance, both sides will pay more attention to cooperation regarding production capacity and issues related to connectivity, sustainable development and the regional financial framework.
As the world’s second-largest economy, China still has to display leadership in the completion of a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). At this juncture, the future of the Trans-Pacific Partnership remains uncertain given the current political atmosphere in the US. The next US president will have to wrangle with the world’s most advanced free-trade framework. Indeed, there is a good opportunity for RCEP members to accelerate negotiations to ensure the RCEP will be completed by next year – the original schedule set a deadline for the end of last year.
Beijing now needs to display political will that could encourage other trading partners in East Asia and Oceania, namely Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, to do the same. India, after some earlier recalcitrance, now shows a new flexible approach regarding the RCEP. Beijing is more supportive of upgrading the China-Asean Free Trade Agreement and hopeful that relations between the East Asia’s three major economies – China, Japan and South Korea – will improve in the near term. Otherwise, any discussion of an imminent RCEP framework would be premature.
China showed disappointment when Asean members were slow to avail themselves of opportunities arising from the Road and Belt Initiatives and various financial tools, such as the Asian Investment Cooperation Fund, the China-Asean Maritime Cooperation Fund and the Silk Road Fund. Indeed, China must also work with Asean as the grouping develops its Master Plan on Asean Connectivity 2015, which will be adopted at the Asean summit next week. Further consultations are urgently needed. Beijing would like to see all of its initiatives, which now exceed 100, included in the upcoming joint statement. Asean wants to make sure that future cooperation with China will be balanced and follows international norms. The Asia Investment Infrastructure Bank has been mentioned as a template for good governance and transparency,
On political and security cooperation, both China and Asean share common values regarding economic interdependence as well as the importance of stability and prosperity in the region. However, they might at times differ on how best to achieve these objectives. While China has long pledged support for an Asean-led mechanism as part of the regional security architecture, it also proposed the Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation to Asean in 2013. So far, Asean has not yet seriously studied the idea for fear it could undermine its own code of conduct. Asean and China are also now working on a code of conduct regarding the South China Sea, which is expected to be completed by the middle of next year.
In Vientiane, both Thailand and Indonesia have delivered statements that received the full support of other Asean members. Thailand reiterated the value and importance of the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), urging outside powers to respect Asean norms and principles contained in the TAC that have guided the grouping for nearly five decades. Indonesia’s statement on the maintenance of peace, security and stability in the region also bolstered the overall Asean position on regional security, particularly in the maritime domain.
Aside from the maritime disputes, China has attended all Asean-related security initiatives such as the Asean Regional Forum and the Asean Defence Ministerial Meeting Plus, including bilateral meetings on defence, law enforcement and security. Moreover, China also has a cooperative security agreement with the upper riparian states of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos along the Mekong River. More security cooperation with Asean is possible in coming years if it enshrines all of the norms and principles contained in the 49th Joint Communique of Asean.
One of the weakest links between China and Asean has been the cultural aspect and people-to-people exchanges. China is aware of this shortcoming and has been finding ways to promote better understanding and friendship with the 625-million-strong Asean community. As more and more Chinese tourists visit Asean countries, it is pivotal to promote awareness of cultural diversity in Asean as well as in various parts of China.
In this connection, Beijing has already come up with an idea to establish cultural centres in key Asean capitals, akin to the one it set up in Bangkok in 2007, the first in Asean.
This year has been designated as the China-Asean Educational Exchange Year. Beijing has already pledged more scholarships than any other country in the world and at least 60,000 students from Asean countries are now studying in China, about 20,000 Thais among them. More Asean students are expected to study in China this year. An additional 1,000 scholarships are planned for the 2016-18 period. In coming years, exchanges among youth and academic communities will also be strengthened.
The joint statement on the 19th Asean-China Summit, to be released on September 7, will indicate the future path of relations. For China, it is clear that winning the grouping’s strategic trust and strengthening and widening economic cooperation beyond the region will be the two top priorities. For Asean, future ties must be of mutual benefit with full respect for law and the diplomatic process.