In 2014, China strived to make a difference in its major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics, and to move from a golden decade to a diamond decade of cooperation with Southeast Asia.
In 2014, the China-ASEAN relationship was re-positioned as a community with a shared destiny, upgraded from its previous status as a “strategic partnership.” Such a transformation was marked by President Xi Jinping’s visit to Indonesia in October 2013 and Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Brunei in November 2013. Li vividly described the process as moving from a golden decade to a diamond decade, and introduced a specific 2+7 framework. In the golden decade, four pillars underpinned China-ASEAN strategic partnership: development of a China-ASEAN free trade area; China joining the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC); China and ASEAN signing of Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC); and China supporting ASEAN’s integration and its ownership and central position in East Asia. In the diamond decade, there will be four groups of pillars supporting the China-ASEAN community of a shared destiny. The first group involves the ASEAN-led RCEP process, an upgraded version of the China-ASEAN free trade area proposed by Li in 2013, and the development of a free trade area in the Asia Pacific, advocated by China at the 2014 APEC meeting. In the second group, the two sides will continue adhering to the TAC and a treaty of good-neighborliness, friendship and cooperation, which China will negotiate and sign with ASEAN. The third group includes continued observance of the DOC, the accelerated negotiation of a code of conduct in the South China Sea (COC) and a dual-track approach, which China proposed in 2014 to handle South China Sea issues. And in the fourth group, on the basis of China supporting ASEAN integration and the East Asian cooperation process, the two sides will jointly develop a security structure in the Asia Pacific, another Chinese proposal.
To be more specific, the success of China’s diplomacy towards ASEAN in 2014 was more obviously morality-driven, and moved steadily on both the wheels of development and security. The morality lies with the principles of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness, which China pursued in developing relations with Southeast Asia. With the development wheel, China provides public goods for regional economic growth. By advancing the construction of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and promoting connectivity at all levels in the Greater Mekong Subregion, between China and ASEAN, and between ASEAN and China, Japan and ROK, China actually provides the driving power for ASEAN growth, which enjoys wide support in ASEAN countries. Myanmar, which assumed the rotating chair in ASEAN for the first time in 2014, successfully held a series of summits. With Chinese Premier Li Keqiang involved, the relevant meetings were very fruitful. The security wheel moved steadily, with China enhancing its capacity to safeguard sovereignty in the South China Sea, and to improve its relevant policies. In August, Foreign Minister Wang Yi put forward a dual-track approach: the relevant disputes should be peacefully resolved by parties directly involved through peaceful consultation and negotiation, while peace and stability in the South China Sea should be jointly maintained by China, as well as ASEAN countries. While opposing American intervention in the South China Sea, China has also increased consultation and coordination with the US on questions related to Asia Pacific security. In November, Premier Li formally proposed that China should follow a dual-track approach to resolve issues in the South China Sea. On the other hand, China agreed to conclude a negotiated COC at an early date, so as to make rules together with ASEAN. Such a move demonstrated self-restraint and readiness for jointly created norms, thus reassuring ASEAN and relieving suspicion on the part of US and Japan.
China’s “advancing and proactive” neighborhood diplomacy will move international relations in Southeast Asia to a new break-in stage. There are still some difficult issues to resolve in order to achieve sound relations between China, its neighbors and America. On the question of morality, the principles of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness help China to take up its responsibility as a big country in the region, and to increase its soft power. Yet they are still insufficient to satisfy ASEAN countries’ ultimate hope that China will truly not seek hegemony. ASEAN also worries that China may attempt to divide it into factions. On the question of development, China advocated its scheme for regional development at APEC, stealing the show from the ASEAN-led East Asian cooperation and giving ASEAN a sense of loss. ASEAN also has geostrategic misgivings with regard to China’s proposal for Asian connectivity, and thus there have been moves to balance China with the US, Japan, India, Russia and Australia. On the question of security, Sino-Philippine and Sino-Vietnamese disputes over the South China Sea were intensified with escalating media and judicial actions. The deployment of the drilling platform CNOOC 981 was intended as an economic move, while Vietnam interpreted it as a security issue, leading to the suffering of Chinese Vietnamese. The Philippines increased its confrontation with China by submitting the South China Sea dispute to an international arbitration and fuelling the anti-China sentiment. Additionally, as the dual-track approach does not include the US, it is even more urgent for China and the US to strengthen their preventive diplomacy in the South China Sea.
In 2015, ASEAN will continue pursuing its priority objective of creating an ASEAN Community. As China sees it, the internal and external relations of ASEAN, the creation of a China-ASEAN community with shared destiny now stand at a new historical starting point. China will advance and be proactive in its diplomacy. Where will ASEAN, now at a crossroads, go?