April 10, 2023
BEIJING – This year witnesses multiple anniversaries of China’s diplomatic engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and beyond. While the mammoth Belt and Road Initiative celebrates the 10th anniversary of its inception, the Action Plan on the ASEAN-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (2022-25) is all set to bring China-ASEAN cooperation and relations to a higher plane, in addition to contributing to the fruition of the ASEAN Community Vision 2025.
This year also marks the 20th anniversary of China’s accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) — a foundational peace treaty for ASEAN — established by its founding members in 1976. The treaty embodies the universal principles of peaceful coexistence and friendly cooperation among the Southeast Asian states and China. It sets out to be a code of guidelines for interstate relations in the region and beyond, in addition to promoting perpetual peace and cooperation among the signatories. China was among the first countries outside ASEAN to accede to the treaty in 2003. It has since been dutifully adhering to the TAC principles which are primarily consistent with China’s norms of global engagement.
The TAC, a non-aggression and cooperation pact between ASEAN and its partners, is intended to create a no-war regime in the region for the sake of realizing common development and prosperity. This aspiration has resonance in both the Global Development Initiative and Global Security Initiative that have been rolled out in tandem by China. The provision of both initiatives as Chinese public goods to help address the global challenges, can hardly have a more opportune time to further enhance the complementarity of their ideals vis-a-vis the aspirations of China’s Southeast Asian neighbors.
China-ASEAN collaboration is all set to go beyond infrastructure development. New dimensions such as the blue economy, green economy and infrastructure for the digital economy are beaconing with promising hopes in parallel to the trade in goods and services. This will make China and ASEAN remain each other’s biggest trading partner for the years to come. With the implementation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership gaining full traction, the economic interests of the two sides are likely to be increasingly intertwined and multi-dimensional.
In the present upbeat scenario of positive engagement, the Global Development Initiative acts as a useful and timely enabler for China to go beyond sheer economics and infrastructure. The role played by China in helping to realize the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 is a prototype for the endeavor to build a China-ASEAN community with a shared future. In this respect, China stands ready to promote global development cooperation and work with all other parties to build a global community with a shared future.
While the ASEAN member states are embracing China as their key economic partner, perhaps few can imagine China’s readiness to be a security provider in the region, much less the world. Over the years, China’s global outreach has been primarily economy-driven, with the exception of its deployment of peacekeeping troops abroad under the auspices of the United Nations. Parallel to this, the contemporary general perspective has it that security interests in the major powers’ geopolitical game plan are inseparable from establishing multilateral military pacts or deploying troops on foreign soil.
China’s military capability build-up in recent years has repeatedly been demonized as a prelude to expansionist ambitions. This has precipitated a certain degree of misgiving across the region that breeds the hedging diplomacy against China within the United States’ alliance system.
The rollout of the Global Security Initiative on the heels of the Global Development Initiative might have caught the international community by surprise. But China’s justification is absolutely logical and relevant as it sees development as the basis for security and security as the condition for development. Indeed, there can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development.
The recent success of China in brokering a reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia has taken the world by storm. This endeavor, widely deemed impossible for a long time, has been made deliverable. This augurs well for the Global Security Initiative to be extensively employed as the springboard for resolving the prevailing conflicts worldwide. It provides a refreshing global security architecture rooted in the principle of “indivisible security”, proposing that no country can strengthen its own security at the expense of others. Under such a common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable framework, security concerns of all stakeholders should be given due consideration on the premise of mutual respect, openness and integration.
Many fundamental aspirations outlined in the TAC are also evident in the Global Security Initiative Concept Paper. China has no ambivalence in pursuing such values as respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity, upholding the sanctity of the UN Charter and the peaceful settlement of disputes. It has no record of coercive imposition of its governance model on others as its political DNA is bereft of any “regime change” agenda.
Meanwhile, the Global Security Initiative might have kept the spin doctors of the West busy with the platitude that the initiative marks a fresh bid of China to supplant the US primacy and usurp the international order. And the latest success of China in brokering peace in the Middle East may even make Washington more unsettled. The US’ anguish at its potential displacement as the reigning unipolar hegemon is increasingly real and heightening, but it is certainly no justification to command the 10 member-state ASEAN to forsake a security architecture that well serves to enhance the cause of the TAC. After all, what concerns ASEAN is to create a region safe for its 650 million people, and not for the distant self-proclaimed “global sheriff” who is pursuing its own agenda to safeguard its hegemony.
Under the framework of the TAC, ASEAN can, at the very least, seek to consolidate its collaboration with China in dealing with non-traditional security concerns. This is consistent with the principles of the Global Security Initiative. The current plethora of security risks, ranging from food security, energy security, transborder crime and climate change — to cite just a few — should be relevant enough to bring the China-ASEAN comprehensive strategic partnership to a higher plane of collaboration in the spirit of preserving the TAC legacy.