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Asean-China: connecting two dreams

Publication Date : 29-07-2013

 

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's first major task after taking office was to meet with senior Asean officials in early April, and he immediately linked the "Chinese Dream" to the "Asean Dream".

To realise the two dreams, he said: "We need to work together, wish each other well and support each other."

What followed in the next few months was the gradual warming up of Asean-China relations after frayed tensions over the South China Sea disputes, which have dominated international news headlines. The recent decision of Asean and China to begin official negotiations over the long delayed code of conduct (COC) is a good barometer of their mutual comfort level and trust. The two sides also manifested the same determination to avoid holding their broader relations hostage to time-consuming and multi-faceted disputes.

At the April meeting, Wang described the Asean Dream as the full realisation of the Asean Community in 2015. He connected the grouping’s community-building effort to China’s own - the dual goals of becoming a "moderately prosperous society" by 2020 and "a strong, prosperous, democratic, culturally advanced society" by 2049 to mark the centenary of the People’s Republic of China. When Asean was established in 1967, the grouping’s founding fathers envisaged that the whole of Southeast Asia would come under one roof. Now that reality is within reach in less than 900 days, that is, by the end of 2015.

To fulfill the Asean and Chinese dreams, both sides will need to sustain continuous economic growth as well as maintain a stable and peaceful external environment. The Asean’s economic growth, which has brought region-wide prosperity and integration, is linked to China’s rapid economic rise. Their combined regional strength has served as a driving force for the overall economic development and integration of East Asia.

Asean and China are facing new challenges as their relations diversify and become more sophisticated. On their home fronts, too, there are stronger interactions between their domestic and immediately external environment. Both have their own constituencies and peculiarities, including different public and media perceptions about their relations. In the age of fast global shifts and expanding connectivity - not to mention increased national pride among East Asian countries - managing stable and rewarding cooperation without impinging on local conditions has remained at best difficult.

Asean-China relations are not immune to such dilemmas. Their leaders have to navigate more complicated bilateral and multilateral relations to avoid damages, real or imagined. Thanks to the so-called Asean+1 family, Asean and China have the most intensive cooperation with 12 ministerial meetings with nearly four dozen specialised committees at various levels, the highest among all the dialogue partners.

China is promoting a tripartite free trade arrangement with Japan and South Korea. Despite showing enthusiasm toward the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, China’s top priority is still the Asean-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), for which negotiations have already begun. Asean will intensify its engagement on the RCEP with the plus three countries.

Last year, their relations reached an all-time low in terms of trust because of the disagreement over how best to proceed with the COC amid growing confrontation. Earlier, China’s position was quite simple: the situation is not ripe for a COC. And the lack of progress on a COC trumped other positive aspects of their multi-facet friendship.

However, with a new leadership in Beijing and a new Asean chair, Brunei, Asean and China have been able to overcome past mistrust. Brunei has forged a new consensus, painstakingly weaving the interests of Asean member states. Both sides will now start the COC drafting process. Of late, the Philippines has toughened its position threatening to derail the Asean efforts.

The four meetings in the fall - two each in Bangkok and in Beijing - at working-group and ministerial levels will zero in on establishing a working modality. The forthcoming High-Level Meeting of Asean and China Forum on August 2 and the Asean ministerial retreat on August 14 in Huahin is pivotal to review and refresh Asean-China relations. At the end of August, China will host a special ministerial meeting with Asean in commemorate the 10th anniversary of their strategic partnership to be followed by a senior official level working group on the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in September.

For both sides, the biggest task is to build on the small progress achieved in Brunei - the willingness to give-and-take and engaging in more consultative endeavours to broaden future cooperation. The Asean joint communique touched on the situation in South China Sea, which it unable to do last year. It stressed their common desire to see the COC process move forward.

 

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