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Foreign Policy

Xi and Li Upgraded China-ASEAN Relations

Oct 23 , 2013

In October, both President

The first is to upgrade China’s positioning in Southeast Asia. Since the 18th Party Congress last year, ASEAN countries had complained about their absence from the agenda of Chinese leaders who visited everywhere—Russia, Africa, South Asia, Europe and Central Asia—except Southeast Asia. In fact, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who tried to demonstrate Chinese commitment to the region by mentioning his multiple travels at the China-ASEAN High-Level Forum in Thailand early August, was the only frequent visitor to the region. By the consecutive visits of the top two leaders to Southeast Asia, China attempted to highlight that the region is, indeed, a top priority in Chinese peripheral diplomacy.

The second is to upgrade the mission of China-ASEAN partnership. Xi proposed to build a China-ASEAN “community of common destiny.” The renewed mission to build the community of common destiny was initiated at the 18th Party Congress and first addressed during the annual meeting of Boao Forum for Asia in April. In addition to Xi’s ambitious proposal to build the new community, Premier Li, at the China-ASEAN Expo held in Nanning last September, praised that China-ASEAN relations had experienced a golden decade and urged to create a “diamond decade” in the future.

The third is to upgrade the China-ASEAN relations. Premier Li insisted that China and ASEAN should promote a good-neighbor friendship and sign cooperation treaties to provide legal and institutional guarantees for their strategic cooperation and guidelines for further development of the bilateral relations. He praised China-Brunei relations as exemplary of big and small countries treating each other as equals and China-Thailand relations a big power playing a demonstrative and guiding role for the other. And with Vietnam, Li derived the agreement to set up three working groups to develop maritime, land and financial cooperation respectively. In accordance with Li’s initiatives, President Xi elevated Chinese relationships with both Indonesia and Malaysia to comprehensive strategic partnerships.

The fourth is to upgrade the China-ASEAN cooperation. China proposed  negotiations to upgrade the current version of China-ASEAN Free Trade Area, as it aims to reach USD 1 trillion in bilateral trade by 2020. Other proposals include: advancing China-ASEAN Defense Ministers’ meeting, negotiating a code of conduct in the South China Sea, building a maritime silk road and connectivity projects, and creating an Asian infrastructure investment bank. Xi and Li made it clear that both Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) are options for the countries in the region and that partnerships would be complementary and transparent.

Judging from the above, the new Chinese leaders have been quite proactive and open towards Southeast Asia with a focus on development and without dodging security issues, an attitude quite well accepted by most ASEAN countries. In a situation where US President Obama was absent from the region due to the government shutdown, the various Chinese proposals are quite aligned with the mainstream desire of the Asia-Pacific region for development.

It can be expected that when China-ASEAN relations move forward, the competitions among the major powers in the Southeast Asia will also heat up. Ten years ago, China put forward a series of creative policies to strengthen its cooperation with ASEAN; it signed the China-ASEAN FTA and the Treaty of Amity (TAC) and Cooperation and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC) with the US, Japan, South Korea, India and Australia. All the countries that were part of TAC and DOC signed FTAs with ASEAN and gradually developed their relations to more strategic ones. The 10+3 has expanded to 10+6 and then to East Asian Summit. The intertwined negotiations and agreements among the major powers have created new dynamism in the Asia-Pacific, in which the involved nations cooperate and simultaneously compete against one other. As a result, ASEAN has gained a higher strategic position and succeeded in its strategy to balance major powers.

Although China has now gained an edge over all of its competitors, it is too early to open the champagne as the U.S. is expected to outstrip its performance. While Xi and Li played the cards of economy and cooperation, the US Secretary of State John Kerry persuaded young leaders of ASEAN countries that the future would belong to them. The U.S. offers a variety of exchange programs targeting scholars, students, young people, young professionals and others with a view to promote social and cultural exchanges between the U.S. and Southeast Asia. According to the U.S. State Department, the five-year higher education partnership program in Indonesia, with 165 million dollars from USAID, will provide more opportunities for learning, researches and cultural exchanges, strengthen partnership among college students and enhance the quality of education. China may have charmed the ASEAN countries with strategic partnerships but it seems the U.S. is the overall winner of the ASEAN-related competition as it provides the region with more fundamental solutions for future development. From this perspective, while upgrading its relations with ASEAN, China should also pay attention to upgrading the China-ASEAN-US interactions.

Zhai Kun is a director of the Institute of World Political Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

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