October 12, 2022
JAKARTA – China has successfully consolidated its diplomatic position in the region by securing commitments to advance cooperation with ASEAN through the comprehensive strategic partnership. While there is no denial in ASEAN that China is among the most influential powers and a substantive partner for cooperation across sectors, the long-standing feature that characterizes China-ASEAN relations is “robust economic cooperation plagued by sustained lack of trust”.
Relations between the two parties have continued to evolve and get to new heights faster than other ASEAN dialogue partners. Their economic ties are now at an all-time high. In the first quarter of 2022, ASEAN was China’s largest trading partner (Global Times, 2022). China’s investment in ASEAN is reported to have exceeded US$310 billion (The Jakarta Post, 2022), and progress is also visible in various infrastructure projects (the Post, 2022).
With China supplied by sustained resources and capital at home, it comes as no surprise that the economy has become an anchor of the country’s foreign policy and that economic support continues to be the major component of China’s charm offensive to capture the hearts of Southeast Asian countries.
In remarks given by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the Chinese government also pledged to continue providing ASEAN countries with substantial economic support as part of the upgraded strategic partnership, from contribution to ASEAN’s crisis mitigation in the form of funds and donation of vaccine doses to additional development assistance for the next few years.
Indeed, the offerings are seemingly attuned to the needs of the ASEAN member states at this time in history when economic rebound is the top priority. However, this does not resolve the looming issue that is counterproductive for the relationship, namely the lack of mutual trust.
It stands to reason that the grouping recognizes China’s continued economic importance. However, China’s growing economic support is simultaneously an increasing source of apprehension for the member countries. How is this the case?
A plethora of studies exist to explain the causes of such a lack of trust in ASEAN-China relations, attributing it to China’s political influence and military might. In summary, it is in no small part due to a confluence of factors, among others China’s continued aggressive behavior in the South China Sea in opposition to ASEAN’s proclaimed values (Thi Ha, 2021) and posturing when vaunting its strength to other countries (Lowy Institute, 2021).
The aforementioned conditions give anxieties to Southeast Asian countries with regard to where China will go, as well as the long-term impact of forging closer relationships with China, including the underlying intentions of China’s continued economic support.
The latest survey by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute found that 76.4 percent of participating Southeast Asians held sentiments about China’s regional political and strategic influence (ISEAS, 2022), and 72.3 percent of the same participants were increasingly troubled about China’s growing economic support for their countries (ISEAS, 2022).
As opposed to viewing economic support as efforts build trust, the majority of officials see it as China’s strategy to subdue objections to its “controversial” behaviors (The Diplomat, 2022), and people are worried that China may use its economic leverage to dictate foreign countries’ policies (ISEAS, 2022). That perceived intention has only increased countries’ apprehension toward China, leading to a hardened lack of political and strategic trust.
This poses a challenge to the future of the ASEAN-China partnership in two ways. First, such a shortage of trust reduces countries’ welcome – if not approval – of China’s maneuvers in the region and further hinders progress in various crucial areas.
Second, it should first be understood that amid global dynamics that remain volatile as rivalry persists, such an upgrading of partnership will bring about competitive tendencies from other ASEAN dialogue partners, evident in the request to elevate the strategic relationship from the United States (The Diplomat, 2022b).
Going forward, ASEAN is likely to remain receptive to various external initiatives and influences, as the strategy of engaging major powers has been the cornerstone of the grouping’s strategic play and enables them to diversify options so as to avoid dependency as well as to cope with uncertainties (Kuik, 2016).
To China, this is a source of challenge as the strategic partnership between the two parties can lose its shine or run out of steam altogether. This would result in a stark gap between what China wishes to achieve and the perceived reality on the ground.
Whereas distrust cannot be fully eliminated (Haitao, 2017), it can be managed, and such views from the ASEAN counterparts can slowly undergo a turnaround. For China to be seen as a more reliable partner, this lack of trust must be addressed by way of utilizing the comprehensive strategic partnership.
The agenda of the comprehensive strategic partnership should go beyond the positive, already workable elements of cooperation, but also depart from the issues from which the cynical, pessimistic expressions of the ASEAN countries emerged – the settlement of the South China Sea dispute mechanisms.
That would entail making clear China’s commitments to sort out dissenting positions, such as about the role of extra-regional countries, and support ASEAN’s efforts to speed up the negotiations on the stalled, long-awaited South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC). In this context, the promotion of intensive security dialogues through the already established ASEAN-centered institutions could be strategic.
In the meantime, cooperation on non-traditional security issues of common interest must be strengthened—if not expanded.
A stable environment is essential for China’s overarching maneuvers in the region, and management of trust in its relationship with ASEAN is fundamental to realizing such an imperative. A comprehensive strategic partnership that addresses issues that matter for the member countries is key to gaining the necessary trust.
The writer is a graduate of International Relations, University of Indonesia (UI), and research assistant at Lembaga Penelitian dan Pengembangan Sosial dan Politik, UI’s School of Social and Political Science (LPPSP FISIP UI) in Depok, West Java. The views expressed are her own.