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China and ASEAN: Will it be cooperation or conflict?

12 Sep China and ASEAN: Will it be cooperation or conflict?

Rising tensions in the South China Sea have changed the tenor of recent relations between the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China from cooperation to potential conflict.

Yet, there is now agreement to begin consultations on a Code of Conduct. Since his appointment, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also visibly upgraded engagement with ASEAN. And marking the 10th anniversary of their strategic partnership, a recent High Level Forum proceeded positively, with officials and experts from both sides. Is there substance beneath the ceremonies? Are relations changing for the better?

This won’t be the first effort by China and South-east Asia to patch over difficulties. The Communist Party’s post-World War II support for Communist movements in the region meant that diplomatic relations were not normalised until 1991. In 1995, the Mischief Reef incident — where China erected structures on the reef in the Spratly Islands — triggered differences which persist till today.

This time, however, China has responded to frictions not with aggression but with a “charm offensive”. Not only would the bold suggestion of a free trade agreement create Asia’s largest market, Beijing’s offer to grant an “early harvest” of preferences also shows empathy for smaller neighbours’ anxieties.

China has become ASEAN’s largest trade partner and closest collaborator. Across the centuries, civilisational connections have been largely peaceful. Yet, history can only do so much for present-day problems. While the ASEAN-China forum hosted by Thailand was mainly positive, other voices and events intrude.

The Philippines and Vietnam are pushing for full negotiations on the Code of Conduct, not a more circumspect “consultation”. Mr Wang Yi has in turn cautioned against “rushing”. Expectations should be managed, since the preceding Declaration of Conduct took the better part of a decade to hammer out.

But there are more pressures today.

Manila recently bolstered its navy by accepting a Hamilton-class cutter from the United States and Washington has said it will push China to speed up negotiations. Japan, which has differences with China over islands further north, unveiled a naval vessel that can deploy helicopters, its largest since WWII.

For China, military modernisation and spending continues apace. Nationalistic netizens will complain if their leaders seem too soft. If conflict is to be headed off, consultations on the South China Sea must move ahead and show sufficient progress, in parallel with cooperation on navigational safety and the marine environment. More importantly, actions by military and other agencies in everyday exchanges must emphasise prudence. Otherwise, all must prepare for rising competition and possible conflict.

There are issues beyond the South China Sea that China and ASEAN can work on together. There is need, for instance, for infrastructure and investment to connect the two. Yet positive steps will not be easy: The China of the 1990s has grown into a giant, and the asymmetry of size and power makes many in ASEAN nervous.

To ease the way, China must demonstrate a degree of magnanimity in assisting ASEAN, especially the developing countries on its borders, without expecting to dominate them. For ASEAN, wisdom must prevail in cooperating with China while adroitly working with other major powers.

This will be critical to two upcoming ASEAN-led efforts — the East Asia Summit and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The first, to be hosted by Brunei, aims for a candid dialogue to build strategic trust, but it can succeed only if all powers are equally welcomed and participative.

The RCEP similarly centres around ASEAN and will bring in all of Asia, including India and Australia-New Zealand. It can boost regional economic integration but only if major economies, including China, show commitment.

In the wake of the 1997 financial crisis, Asian cooperation grew and ASEAN and China were key actors. The two must again see their cooperation as essential, rather than optional. Otherwise, Asia’s regionalism will falter.

The alternative is that security would continue to depend on the American alliance system, while the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) for economic and trade integration would take centre stage. This could negatively impact China and many ASEAN members who stand outside the TPP.

China may have differences with ASEAN and vice-versa. But if Asians are to come together as a region, dealing with problems and upgrading ASEAN-China cooperation is essential.


Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. The SIIA will host the ASEAN Asia Forum on 12 September to discuss key issues in the region that matter for business. This article was originally published in The Nation on 12 August, and again in TODAY on 14 August.