The China-ASEAN Relationship Gets a New Boost

From May 1 to 5, China’s new Foreign Minister Wang Yi paid an official visit to four Southeast Asian nations including Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei, and Singapore. This visit, which was the first of Minister Wang since he assumed office, was called a “trip for communication and cooperation.” The fact that it is also the first time in 15 years that China’s foreign minister chose Southeast Asia as the destination of his first visit shows that China pays great attention to its relationship with ASEAN countries.

In recent years, many believed that the China-ASEAN relationship was nagged by the issue of South China Sea. Under such circumstances, the Chinese foreign minister’s visit will undoubtedly give China-ASEAN relationship a new boost.

Since the initiation of the dialogue process in 1991, the China-ASEAN relationship has gone through an extraordinary path of development. China and ASEAN has established more than 40 cooperation mechanisms and carried out exchange and cooperation in more than 20 fields, which makes the relationship more and more practical and institutionalized.

In politics, China was the first to establish a strategic partnership with ASEAN among its dialogue partners and the first, together with India, to sign the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. 

In relation to the economy, China and ASEAN established the biggest free-trade area among developing countries, with the value of bilateral trade jumped from $54.8 billion to $400 billion in 2002 and the total amount of two-way investment reached $100 billion. China has become the largest trade partner of ASEAN, while ASEAN the third largest trade partner of China.

In defense and security, China and ASEAN signed the MOU on cooperation in non-traditional security area and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), built annual defense and security consultation mechanisms with most ASEAN countries, and conducted joint training with armed forces of Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia. China and ASEAN cooperation in areas such as maritime security, science and technology, environmental protection, education, health, and culture is also making continuous progress. 

The success of the China-ASEAN relationship in the last two decades is realized through both sides’ coordination in strategy, expansion of mutual interests, and desire to maintain stability in the region. The strategic partnership between China and ASEAN is a comprehensive and future-oriented relationship, and is rooted in broad mutual interests between China and ASEAN countries. So, despite of all kinds of challenges, such as ASEAN’s concern about China’s rise, economic competition, and the issue of South China Sea, the China-ASEAN relationship keeps going forward.

During his visit to Southeast Asia, Foreign Minister Wang pointed out that China’s new leaders pay great attention to its relationship with neighboring countries,  and will prioritize ASEAN in its peripheral diplomacy. This is evidenced in President Xi Jinping’s speech in this year’s Boao Asia Forum held in Hainan, in which he said that China will adhere to the policy of good neighborliness and friendliness, deepen cooperation of mutual benefit between China and neighboring countries, so as to let China’s development bring more benefit to its neighbors.

This position has important implications. First, it shows that China highlights good relationships with its neighbors in order to create a favorable peripheral environment for peaceful development. Second, it sends out a clear signal that ASEAN’s position in China’s diplomacy is elevating, which is conducive to ease the suspicions of ASEAN toward China. Third, it shows that China-ASEAN relationship is moving toward a new balance after more than three years of adaptation due to the influence of the South China Sea issue and the US pivot to Asia. 

After more than 20 years of development, the China-ASEAN relationship is now entering a new phase of inheriting the past and ushering in the future. This year is the 10th anniversary of the China-ASEAN strategic partnership. This means that the relationship between the two sides is now standing on a new starting point. On the one hand, this relationship is facing a new international and strategic environment. China’s rise, ASEAN’s integration, and the shift of international center of gravity to Asia-Pacific will all test the China-ASEAN relationship. 

On the other hand, during Foreign Minister Wang’s visit to Southeast Asia, China put forward new visions for the China-ASEAN cooperation. Generally speaking, China wants to promote the overall relationship with ASEAN, while at the same time enhance its relationship with members of ASEAN on a bilateral level. As to the China-ASEAN relationship as a whole, China wishes to expand the strategic partnership, especially in the fields of connectivity, maritime cooperation, and regional economic cooperation partnership (RECP). As to the bilateral relationship with ASEAN member states, China highlights the specialty and stability of its cooperation with Thailand, the strategic character of cooperation with Indonesia, the forward-looking feature of cooperation with Singapore, and wants to further cooperation with Brunei in the fields of energy, infrastructure, agriculture, and fishing, etc.

There are various factors influencing the China-ASEAN relationship, such as the issue of South China Sea, the imbalance of trade, the interference of external forces, competition over natural resources (fishery, oil, gas), etc. However, in a deep sense, the factors influencing the China-ASEAN relationship are the international and strategic environment, and the mutual perception between China and ASEAN. This is because Southeast Asia, which is composed of small- and medium-sized countries, and lies in an important geographical position connecting the Pacific with the Indian Ocean, is easily influenced by strategic changes. This, in turn, will impact the perceptions of ASEAN toward big powers in and outside the region, including China.

For example, after the end of the Cold War, the China and ASEAN relationship steadily improved. To some extent, the reason is that with the end of the confrontation between the US and Soviet Union, the role of ideology declined, while at the same time, China and ASEAN had increasing mutual interests in developing their economies and maintaining regional stability. Besides, during that time, ASEAN’s perception toward China was also changing to be more positive, especially after the 1997 Asian economic crisis when China did not depreciate its currency. The rising tensions in the South China Sea in recent years is also the result of the US rebalance to Asia, with Southeast Asia as a focus and the increasing concern of ASEAN toward China’s rise.

The US rebalance has encouraged some claimant ASEAN countries to pursue their maritime interests and sovereignty claims more boldly. Although these issues may continue to affect the China-ASEAN relationship, as long as China and ASEAN hold on to the core of their relationship—that is, good neighborliness, friendship, cooperation and common development—they can reduce the negative factors in the China-ASEAN relationship, promote the strategic partnership, and maintain regional peace and stability.

Liu Lin, PhD, is a Lieutenant Colonel at the PLA Academy of Military Science, Central Military Commission, China.