November 22, 2022
BEIJING – Editor’s note: Despite the complex international environment and rising global uncertainties, trade between China and ASEAN continues to grow, reflecting the strong bond between the two sides and facilitating regional economic and social development. Three experts share their views on the issue with China Daily.
Bright prospects ahead for ASEAN, China
The year 2022 is special for ASEAN-China relations. It is the first year for building the ASEAN-China comprehensive strategic partnership, established exactly one year ago by the leaders of ASEAN member states and President Xi Jinping at the special summit to commemorate the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-China dialogue relations.
This year also marks the entry into force of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement. Looking back over the years, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China have managed to overcome various challenges both within and beyond the region. We are pleased to see that the ASEAN-China comprehensive strategic partnership has got off to a good start, and ASEAN-China relations have entered the “fast lane”.
Since the establishment of dialogue relations, the two sides have developed all-round, multi-level and wide-ranging cooperation.
The Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence
The two sides adhere to the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence, continue to uphold ASEAN centrality and practice open regionalism. They persist on solving differences and problems through friendly consultation and dialogue on an equal footing. In such a spirit, they have maintained peace and stability in the region. Especially on the South China Sea issue, ASEAN member states and China have followed the principles underlined by the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, implemented it over the past 20 years, and continued their efforts to make the South China Sea a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.
The two sides have also bolstered economic ties and expedited regional economic integration. While two-way trade has grown by 85 times from 1991 to 2021, maintaining a robust growth momentum, China has been ASEAN’s largest trading partner for 13 consecutive years, and ASEAN’s position as China’s largest trading partner has further consolidated.
Also, bilateral trade increased by 15.8 percent year-on-year in the first 10 months of this year to 5.26 trillion yuan ($737.6 billion), accounting for 15.2 percent of China’s foreign trade. And China has become the second-largest investor in ASEAN, with its investment in 2021 touching $14 billion, up 96 percent year-on-year.
The two sides have also maintained frequent people-to-people exchanges. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, ASEAN and China were important sources of inbound tourists and travel destinations for each other, with mutual visits exceeding 65 million and the total number of flights between the two sides being more than 4,500 a week in 2019.
Besides, Chinese universities are offering majors in the official languages of all the ASEAN member states, and the two-way flow of students was more than 200,000 a year before the pandemic broke out.
At the just-concluded 25th ASEAN-China Summit in Phnom Penh, the leaders of the ASEAN members and China met face-to-face for the first time since the COVID-19 outbreak, and applauded the achievements made by ASEAN and China over the past more than 30 years. They also discussed ways to expand cooperation in areas such as trade, the digital economy, infrastructure building, the environment and ecology, and education and culture.
Among other things, the summit declared 2023 as the ASEAN-China year of agriculture and food security cooperation, and approved the action plan on advancing the ASEAN-China comprehensive strategic partnership, in an effort to jointly build a peaceful, secure, prosperous, beautiful and amicable home.
The RCEP and the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement 3.0 have given the region another chance to boost economic development. So the two sides should use the advantage to further raise the two-way trade and investment, as well as strengthen the industry and supply chains.
Moreover, since ensuring food security is a challenge for all countries, ASEAN and China should enhance cooperation on agricultural studies, digital agriculture and eco-agriculture, and present to the world our solutions to the problems faced on the road to agricultural modernization and food security.
And we should work together to increase people-to-people exchanges. For example, we should use the increase in the number of direct flights between the two sides to help the tourism industry recover faster, and enable more students to resume classes in universities in China as well as ASEAN states.
Eleven years ago, leaders of all the 10 ASEAN member states and China, as well as the then ASEAN secretary-general inaugurated the ASEAN-China Centre in Beijing as an international organization, setting a mission to work as a one-stop information and activity center to promote ASEAN-China cooperation in trade, investment, education, culture, tourism and the media. The establishment of the ACC reflects the importance the two sides attach to their relations and their eagerness to deepen cooperation.
Over the years, the ACC participated in the process of the ASEAN-China relationship growing from strategic partnership to comprehensive strategic partnership, during which the all-round, multi-level and wide-range cooperation has become deeper and more substantial. The positive role the ACC has played was highlighted in the joint statement issued at the special commemorative summit last year and in the speech Premier Li Keqiang gave at the ASEAN-China Summit earlier this month. This also reflects the two sides are satisfied with the ACC’s work in the six priority cooperation areas.
Under the guidance of the governments, the ACC will focus on implementing the action plan to advance the ASEAN-China comprehensive strategic partnership, including deepening policy exchanges and coordination to meet the needs of both sides; promoting the Belt and Road Initiative, the RCEP, the CAFTA 3.0 and synergizing the governments’ development policies; helping Chinese enterprises to fulfill their “going ASEAN” policy and ASEAN companies to invest in China; organizing more visits and business-matching activities for local governments and enterprises from the two sides; harnessing the advantages of networking in facilitating lectures, training programs, workshops and exchanges in education, culture and tourism; and strengthening practical cooperation and mechanism building to prepare for the rebound of the travel and people-to-people exchanges.
I am confident that ASEAN-China relations have a brighter future. The leaders of the ASEAN member states have committed to working with China to further unleash the cooperation potential and bolster two-way ties. China, on its part, has made its relations with neighboring countries a top priority of its overall diplomacy, with ASEAN being high on that agenda.
China stands ready to work with ASEAN to deepen mutual trust and friendship, achieve high-level development and stride toward modernization together. The stable ties between the two sides have become the stabilizer, ballast and propeller for the region and the world, as they have set a fine example of common development and international collaboration.
The author Shi Zhongjun is secretary-general of the ASEAN-China Centre.
Need to boost ties between China and Southeast Asia
The 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China took place at a time when the regional and global communities are experiencing extreme turbulence due to rapid developments, some good and some bad.
And the frequent interactions between China and ASEAN countries after the 20th Party Congress have indicated the warming up of ties between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors.
The most significant development in recent years has been the gradual replacement of a unipolar world order by multipolarism. Since the beginning of the 1990s and the end of the Cold War, the world order had been built around a structure that had the United States as the global superpower. That, however, is beginning to change.
The new world order is reorganizing around the US-China competition. This distinct bipolarity might lead to more prominent multipolarism as more geopolitical conflicts, such as the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, spread to other parts of the world, creating geopolitical divisions in the world order.
At a time when the world order is facing such significant disruptions, it has become imperative for countries and regional bodies to work together for maintaining regional and global stability.
China and Southeast Asia have a long history of cooperation, which has progressed on the basis of mutually beneficial exchanges. These exchanges have significantly been in the area of trade in goods. But China and several Southeast Asian countries are also parts of several major global supply chains.
China’s ability to assemble both high-tech and low-cost, labor-intensive manufacturing items on large scales has enabled Southeast Asian economies to supply large amounts of intermediate and semi-finished products to it for final production.
This integration through supply chains is reflected in China being the largest trade partner of several Southeast Asian countries. It is also visible through the cross-border capital flows and investments that have brought production networks across China and Southeast Asia closer to each other over the years.
China-Southeast Asia economic ties have, however, extended well beyond trade into other areas. One of the most important of these is people-to-people connectivity. And strong and expanding business ties have facilitated rapid movements of people between China and Southeast Asia.
Robust cultural exchanges, too, have multiplied over the years with the increase in transport connectivity between China and Southeast Asia. Also, air and sea connectivity between China and Southeast Asia has expanded manifold, increasing tourist flow between the two sides, as well as facilitating family reunions.
People-to-people exchanges have grown rapidly also because of the movement of students between the two sides. Students from Southeast Asia have been travelling in large numbers to study in China. At the same time, Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore and Malaysia, which are the region’s main higher education hubs, have been attracting large numbers of Chinese students.
However, the shifts in the global political and economic landscapes have raised some concerns over whether China and Southeast Asia will be able to maintain their exchanges as smoothly as they have in the past. Geopolitical flare-ups in different parts of the world give rise to questions over whether maritime territorial differences between China and some Southeast Asian countries can create awkward conditions for deepening their cooperation.
One of the best ways of overcoming these concerns is to work through established institutional mechanisms that have bound China and Southeast Asia. One of these is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Established as an ASEAN-plus economic architecture, the RCEP came into force on Jan 1, 2022.
As a matter of fact, the RCEP can help China and Southeast Asia take forward their existing cooperation to the next level. It is a modern and contemporary trade and investment cooperation agreement, which all sides can use to engage in new areas of economic cooperation, such as in digital trade, infrastructure and a variety of services.
The RCEP has several provisions that have been introduced specifically for addressing the needs of small and medium-sized enterprises. This would enable SMEs from both China and Southeast Asian countries to explore various new prospects as collaborative startups. The RCEP may also be the best option for China and Southeast Asia to work together for reorganizing and/or bolstering some of the major supply chains that have been heavily disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The conclusion of the 20th Party Congress gives both China and Southeast Asia the opportunity to reflect on the trajectories of their past association and how they can continue to engage closely in view of the challenges that have emerged. In the light of these challenges, they can look afresh at mechanisms such as the RCEP for new collaborations. China’s latest moves to fine-tune the “dynamic clearing” anti-pandemic policy might mark a new beginning in this regard, by facilitating greater trade and travel.
The author Amitendu Palit is a senior research fellow and research lead (trade and economics) at the Institute of South Asian Studies in the National University of Singapore.
Regional success through peace, development
The three high-level meetings, the East Asian Summit, the G20 Summit and the APEC meeting, held within a week or so in Phnom Penh, Bali and Bangkok respectively, signify the success of economic policy in countering geopolitical issues. Western powers had used the Southeast Asian region to apply their geopolitical strategy against China for centuries before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
The value of Southeast Asia as a region to sharpen the West’s geopolitical strategies gradually started fading after that. But when the United States emerged as the only superpower after the end of the Cold War, Southeast Asia again became important for the West to contain China’s rise.
In the first half of the past century, Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and South Vietnam were turned into US military bases, from where they launched their assault on China. But after the PRC and the US established diplomatic relations in 1979, the US-led West’s policy toward China changed. The situation remained somewhat normal till the end of the 20th century.
But at the turn of the century, Washington changed tack again. It has now labeled China as a “threat” to the US and the other Western powers — and even Western values. And US presidents, from Barack Obama and Donald Trump to Joe Biden, have tried to force or coerce Southeast Asian countries to join the US-led anti-China bloc.
However, to prevent being used as a pawn in the US’ geopolitical game against China, the Southeast Asian countries have focused on economic development to overcome Western pressure to target China. The establishment of a regional organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, was the first step the region took to exercise collective, and thus stronger, bargaining power.
That’s why the fundamental principles of ASEAN are to maintain political neutrality, not to have any military alliance with any country from outside the region, open up their economies and promote trade and investment. After more than half a century of pursuing economic development, ASEAN has become the only true regional economic organization in the world.
As a result, while the world faces more troubles due to geopolitics, ASEAN has been attracting more and more trade partners from across the world. Even the US and the EU have begun to worry about the possibility of being isolated from regional trade if they ignore ASEAN. And the fact that the region has drawn top world leaders to the three meetings shows that the international community has realized the importance of the region in terms of global development and peace.
First, both Russia and Ukraine were invited to the meetings despite being engaged in a conflict since February. While Russia demanded that the US-led West lift the sanctions they imposed following the Ukraine conflict, some countries urged Russia not to restrict its energy and food exports to other countries, in order to ease the energy and food crises. And all sides called for an end to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Second, the hyping up of the “China threat” theory by the US has intensified differences between the two sides. But the G20 Summit provided a platform for President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Joe Biden to hold face-to-face talks, the first since Biden entered the White House in January 2021, and ease some of the bilateral tensions.
As widely expected, the Chinese side said Washington should stop its provocative moves, including interfering in the Taiwan question and worsening China’s security environment.
As far as ASEAN is concerned, the meeting provided an opportunity to show the security concerns of all the countries in the region. In order to get the US to engage in more dialogues with ASEAN, Biden was invited to establish a “strategic partnership” with the regional bloc. If the US does so, it can have another platform to engage with China because the latter is already a strategic partner of ASEAN.
Third, the three meetings also called for deepening regional economic cooperation. To this end, China was urged to increase investments in ASEAN member states, especially in Belt and Road infrastructure projects. In response, the Chinese side said it would try to do so. And since the commitment was made in front of US delegates, ASEAN expected a positive response from Biden to its proposal.
In fact, Biden promised billions of dollars of investment in ASEAN. As a consequence of this promotion of trade and investment, economic development will get a much-needed shot in the arm.
And fourth, at the East Asian Summit in Phnom Penh, the Chinese delegates led by Premier Li Keqiang urged all stakeholders to enhance cooperation to promote joint development and uphold the “Code of Conduct” in the South China Sea. And if all countries around the South China Sea work together, ASEAN’s hopes of keeping geopolitics at bay from this part of the world will become reality.
The author Chang Chak-yan is the dean of Taima Journalism and Information Academy, Malaysia.