Next era in Thai-China-Asean ties

opinion August 23, 2014 01:00

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The special and strategic partnership between the two countries can play a major role in helping promote confidence and trust in the region

Excerpts from the address by Sihasak Phuangketkeow, permanent secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand, at the international conference yesterday on China: Connectivity with The Asean Economic Community co-hosted by Bangkok Bank, Mitr Phol and Huawei, Asia News Network, China Daily and The Nation.
By the end of next year, there will be an Asean Community, a political-security, economic, and socio-cultural community of 10 nations and some 620 million people. Half of this population is currently part of the productive workforce.
Together, the Asean countries have a combined gross domestic product of some US$2.1 trillion. Indeed, when Asean becomes a Community next year, it will be a huge single market and production base.
In preparation, Asean is intensifying its efforts to enhance connectivity and deepen integration both within Southeast Asia and with its regional partners.
To this end, a regional FTA is being negotiated between Asean and six of its dialogue partners with whom Asean already has individual FTAs. These six are China, Japan, Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. And this agreement is known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP.
Asean is also working to bridge the development gap in the region. Closing this gap will enhance the potential for growth, both within Asean and beyond.
Indeed, all across Asia, economies have expanded at an astounding pace. And Asia continues to be a major driver of world economic growth. 
So there are surely many new and challenging opportunities opening up. 
But as much cause as we have for optimism, we also have reason to keep clear-eyed about potential risks and challenges.
I was in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, recently for the annual Asean Ministerial Meeting as well as ministerial-level meetings with Asean’s Dialogue Partners, including of course China. We had good discussions on developments in the region.
And we were of the view that the strategic landscape in the region was becoming increasingly complex, marked by both opportunities and challenges to regional peace and prosperity.
In Nay Pyi Taw, I had the opportunity to present Thailand’s thinking on the current strategic landscape in Asia.
I believe the word that best captures the current state of play in the region is the word “dichotomy.”
On the one hand, there is the region’s economic dynamism – increased cooperation, integration, greater prosperity – all of which underpin peace and security. But on the other hand, there is the geopolitics, which is very much in flux, and going in the direction of more competition and increased tensions.
So the dichotomy that we are seeing here is between the positive economic developments in the region and its volatile geopolitics.
So what is the geopolitical landscape in Asia like?
For one, we have a rising China.
Two, we have an economically revitalised Japan, one that is also seeking to play a greater defence and security role in the region and beyond.
And three, we have a United States that is intensifying both its engagement and presence in Asia.
And when we have rising and established powers meeting in the same arena, there is bound to be tension and very real potential for conflict.
There is also the issue of the legacies of history, which have yet to be brought to closure, especially in Northeast Asia. 
And how the strategic relations among the major powers are played out will impact the region’s flashpoints, such as in the South and East China Seas and on the Korean Peninsula. But this is not to say that the outlook is bleak. It is only to caution that the direction of current geopolitics is a risk factor for Asia’s continued economic growth and development. 
So far, we have had an environment of relative peace and security in which to pursue growth and development. Therefore, we must do all that we can to maintain peaceful environment. And this was the overall assessment and general sentiment expressed by the Asean Foreign Ministers and their counterparts from the 10 Asean Dialogue Partner countries who gathered in Nay Pyi Taw earlier this month.
Indeed, maintaining a peaceful, stable, and secure external environment is of the utmost importance.
We must not let current geopolitics threaten to unravel the region’s economic gains and undercut our potential for further growth and development.
The region’s economic success shows that economic development and cooperation are the best means of strengthening the foundations of peace in the region.  Indeed, economic growth and prosperity reduce the likelihood of war. When nations are locked into shared prosperity, they have no intent to get into conflict.
Today, all eyes are focused on China – its growing economic weight and political clout. It is recognised that China is a rising power and a key player in the region and the world. And we believe that it is in China’s own interest to ensure that its rise is a peaceful one.
After all, we have heard past and present Chinese leaders stress the importance of a peaceful rise focusing on economic development.
China’s economic growth and development have been good for the region and the world. It has allowed China to pursue – together with Thailand and Asean – our shared interest in the promotion and maintenance of a peaceful, secure, and stable external environment.
Thailand and China have always enjoyed a special and close relationship.  Indeed, together, we have faced and overcome challenges, especially during the Cambodia conflict. And through the years, our relations have advanced to a strategic partnership.
This strategic partnership can play a role in helping to promote and build confidence and trust in the region. And I believe that this strategic partnership has also had positive spillover effects on overall Asean-China relations, which I will address a bit later on.
In fact, given Thailand’s strategic location at the heart of mainland Southeast Asia and status as the region’s second-largest economy, we are well-positioned to serve as a bridge between Asean and China.
An important dimension of the partnership between Thailand and China is the work that our two countries are doing to promote connectivity, both bilaterally and at the regional level. These efforts – undertaken by our governments in cooperation with the private sector – have helped to promote and build confidence and trust in the region.
In this connection, I wish to highlight the work done by our two countries in the Mekong Sub-region through the Greater Mekong Sub-region, or GMS, framework. 
At the end of last year, Thailand and China, along with the Lao PDR and the ADB (Asian Development Bank), completed the 4th Mekong Friendship Bridge. This bridge connects the Lao PDR to the northern part of Thailand at Chiang Khong in Chiang Rai province. And it represents the last so-called “missing link” on Route No 3A connecting Thailand to the Lao PDR and on to Kunming in China along the GMS North-South Economic Corridor.
Joint efforts are also being made with China and the Lao PDR to expedite the signing and implementation of an MoU to facilitate the cross-border transport of people and goods along Route No 3A.
Thailand has also made steady progress on software connectivity by putting in place customs, immigration, and quarantine facilitation at key border checkpoints that are the main gateways to China.     
China’s participation in the GMS has helped to boost economic development in the Mekong Sub-region.
It has also helped us to recognise that we have shared interests in working together for the benefit of the region as a whole. In President Xi Jinping’s words, we are indeed “a community of common destiny”.
As countries become more and more connected economically – in terms of transport links, trade, and people-to-people contact – peace and security in the region are strengthened. In other words, enhanced connectivity yields positive benefits for peace and security. 
Connectivity is, therefore, something that all countries in the region attach importance to and are actively pursuing as an agenda.
All of the major powers in Asia have a connectivity agenda. And each of them – China, Japan, Korea, the United States and India – has launched various initiatives to enhance its role in supporting growth and development in the Mekong Sub-region.
In fact, in Nay Pyi Taw earlier this month, there was a Mekong-Japan Ministerial Meeting and a Mekong-US Ministerial Meeting under the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) chaired by [US] Secretary [of State] John Kerry himself. And two weeks prior, I co-chaired the Mekong-ROK Ministerial Meeting in Seoul alongside the South Korean Foreign Minister.
Undeniably, there is an element of competition here among the major powers. But this is a case of the more competition there is, the better, especially in terms of growth and development for the region.  
Which brings me to the last part of my talk – and that is Asean-China relations.
I ventured earlier that the strategic partnership between Thailand and China has had positive spillover effects on overall Asean-China relations. And good relations between Asean and China can surely contribute to regional peace and security as well as prosperity of the region as a whole.
First, in terms of prosperity.  China became a full Dialogue Partner of Asean in 1996. In 2010, Asean and China concluded an FTA, creating a market of nearly 2 billion people. The two sides also conduct robust trade, which has increased every year. A target has now been set to achieve US$1 trillion in trade by 2020.  And bilateral investment has also increased substantial.
We welcome China’s proposals to take Asean-China cooperation into its second decade. These include upgrading the Asean-China FTA; expediting efforts to enhance physical connectivity, such as through construction of the Trans-Asian Railway as well as the establishment of an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; and promoting maritime cooperation by way of building the “Maritime Silk Road” of the 21st Century. 
Second, enhanced partnership between Asean and China is an important pillar of regional peace and stability.
In spite of the multi-dimensional nature of this relationship, however, the concern is that the South China Sea has become a defining issue. This was the situation when Thailand took up the job of coordinator of Asean-China relations last year.
With that in mind, we set out to lessen tension, ensure progress in talks on the creation of a Code of Conduct, or COC, on the South China Sea, and move forward overall Asean-China relations.  
I have personally been involved in moving talks on the COC and have had the privilege of co-chairing these meetings with Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin.
The talks have progressed certainly.  But, I believe, that we have made steady progress. We are building a habit of dialogue and confidence among all sides. And we are finding common ground, such as our commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes under international law.
In tandem with the COC process, we are also pursuing talks on the implementation of the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, or DOC. And most recently in Nay Pyi Taw, Asean and China were able to agree to an early conclusion of the COC by way of intensifying consultations. Also, in the interim, both sides agreed to consider early harvest measures that would address the situation on the ground. 
The South China Sea case is an example of Thailand, China, and Asean working closely together to ensure that diplomacy and dialogue prevail as the best approach to the region’s quest for peace and security. 
I have highlighted some of the important relationships driving growth and development in the region, that is, the Thai-China and Asean-China relationships. These relationships are also key to the maintenance of peace and security in the region.