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Foreign Policy

China and ASEAN Achieved Soft-Landing at Vientiane

Oct 03 , 2016
  • Luo Yongkun

    Research Associate, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

This year marks the 25th anniversary of China becoming ASEAN’s full dialogue partner. Recently Premier Li Keqiang went to Laos for the 19th China-ASEAN (10+1) Summit to commemorate that anniversary, eager to draw a new blueprint for the future of China-ASEAN relations. The two sides will develop the partnership, build a new platform for cooperation in political security, cultivate new growth impetus for economic and trade cooperation, and forge a new pillar of people-to-people and cultural exchanges and cooperation. 

This is the first time in recent years for China and ASEAN to successfully avoid the hyped-up South China Sea issue and reach a common understanding on the future of their relations at the leaders’ meeting. The China-ASEAN relationship finally achieved a soft landing after such setbacks as the Sino-Philippine standoff at Huangyan Island, Sino-Vietnamese dispute over oil rig HYSY-981 and the South China Sea arbitration case filed by the Philippines. This is the primary achievement of the premier’s visit to Laos. The two sides have always championed harmony and win-win, and the successful meeting reflects that their relationship is in a mature stage of stability.
The China-ASEAN dialogue partnership started after the end of the Cold War. During the Cold War, due to confrontation between East and West, China’s relations with ASEAN and Southeast Asian countries were frustrated by ideologies. In the past 25 years, the two sides have brought the culture of peace, tolerance and cooperation into their relationship and extended it to all of East Asia. ‘Valuing harmony as the most precious’ and ‘seeking harmony but not uniformity’ are the fundamental features and values of the Chinese culture. ASEAN has always stressed the consensus-based ASEAN Way, which pursues common ground and preserves differences in harmony. The two sides’ parallel cultural spirits has led to sustained and expanding bilateral relations. In the process, the philosophy of harmony and cooperation has gradually spread to the whole region, replacing the zero-sum mentality of life or death during the Cold War and becoming a core concept within East Asian values.
China and ASEAN together promote regional prosperity, mutual benefit and win-win through all-round cooperation. China is the largest economy in this region and ASEAN is the most important regional organization. During the Cold War, the two sides had a deficit in political trust, weak economic and cultural exchanges and no security cooperation. Today, China and ASEAN are dialogue partners with a comprehensive cooperation framework covering political, economic, security and cultural fields. Politically, China joined the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. Relations between the two sides turned from hostility to strategic partnership, and the 10+1 leaders meeting was established. Economically, the two sides have negotiated an upgrading of the China-ASEAN FTA and developed the Lancang-Mekong River Cooperation Mechanism. In the past 25 years, two-way trade volume increased from $8 billion to $472.2 billion and accumulated two-way investment was over $160 billion. In the security field, China was the first dialogue partner of ASEAN to sign a memorandum of understanding on non-traditional security cooperation and adopt an action plan to implement the MOU. The two sides have developed comprehensive cooperation in law enforcement, maritime security, combating cross-boundary crimes and counterterrorism. In the field of people-to-people exchanges, China was the first to sign a cultural cooperation agreement with ASEAN and has developed some landmark projects and mechanisms including the China-ASEAN Cultural Ministers’ Meeting, China-ASEAN Education Week and China-Southeast Asia High-Level People-to-People Dialogue. Parties will soon sign the agreement of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is up to now the most important economic cooperation initiative in East Asia. The Lancang-Mekong River cooperation will boost the development of the greater Mekong River region. China and ASEAN support each other’s positions in regional cooperation, which underpins the orderly progress of East Asian cooperation based on ASEAN+1 and through ASEAN +3.
Finally, China and ASEAN enjoy cooperative security and jointly maintain regional stability. In recent years, Western countries have hyped up and interfered in South China Sea disputes, putting China and ASEAN in the teeth of the storm. Nonetheless, since the end of the Cold War, and during the 1997 Asian financial crisis in particular, the South China Sea region has been peaceful and stable on the whole. Even though China and Southeast Asian countries have different interests, the two sides have had effective consultation and communication, signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and guidelines for a hotline between senior diplomats during maritime emergencies, and issued a joint statement on South China Sea and one on applying rules of accidental encounter at sea in the South China Sea. The two sides are also actively advancing consultation on a code of conduct in the South China Sea. The Chinese position of resolving disputes with a dual-track approach has been accepted by ASEAN countries. The two sides have important common understanding on jointly maintaining peace and stability and in the South China Sea. Since the arbitration, the Philippines has started to contact China through bilateral channels and the ASEAN Summit handled the South China Sea issue in a very low-key manner. Notions that China is trying to split ASEAN and that China is seeking hegemony in the South China Sea have collapsed. Jointly maintaining peace by way of cooperative security is the largest contribution of China and ASEAN to this region.
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