20th anniversary of China-ASEAN dialogues an opportunity to review good neighbourliness

China and ASEAN have pledged to consolidate and promote their strategic partnership, according to a statement issued at a reception in Beijing to commemorate the 20th anniversary of ASEAN-China dialogues.

China State Councillor Dai Bingguo spoke highly of the development of China-ASEAN relations in his address to the reception. He said China will unswervingly support less-developed ASEAN member countries to speed up the realisation of their development goals. China will support the construction of the ASEAN community, he said.

He also raised a proposal on deepening the China-ASEAN strategic partnership. His proposal included China's desire to enhance political trust and expand mutually beneficial cooperation in areas such as trade, infrastructure, security and cultural exchanges.

The relationship between China and ASEAN progressed from consultative dialogue partners in 1991 to full dialogue partners in 1996, then on to a strategic partner in 2003 and finally to the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (ACFTA) last year.

China also participated  in the ASEAN Swap Arrangement and the Chiang Mai Initiative, is a member of the East Asia Summit and has joined the ASEAN Regional Forum and acceded to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.

Writing in the China Daily, Sanchita Basu Das, lead researcher for economic affairs at the ASEAN Studies Centre, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, noted that over the two decades, "China has assured that it needs ASEAN to grow and to become its partner in driving regional economic growth."

Following the initiatives of policy makers on both sides, ASEAN and China have enjoyed a thriving trade and investment relationship:

  • From 1991 to 2000, ASEAN-China trade grew much faster, averaging 20.4% a year, compared to the growth in China's global trade of 15% and ASEAN's global trade of 10.9%;
  • From 2001 to 2008, ASEAN-China trade increased an average of 20% a year, making them the fourth largest trading partners for each other.
  • China is also a fast growing source of tourists visiting ASEAN member states, their numbers increasing from 2.4 million in 2001 to 4.4 million in 2008.
  • Actual investment from ASEAN economies to China has reached $52 billion, and Chinese enterprises had invested $6.1 billion in ASEAN members until 2008.

"Besides economics, ACFTA is also viewed as a means to reduce the chances of existing security problems erupting into conflicts," Ms Bas explained. "This is because any major feud between ASEAN member states and China could destroy peace in the region, which would be harmful for China's economic rise and subsequently for ASEAN's economic growth."

Dr Jian Junbo, an assistant professor of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, China, concurred that China is pursuing a “good neighbor policy” in Asia, but believes  "the time is ripe for Beijing to review and improve its Asia strategy."

Writing in the Asia Times about criticism of China's maritime policies by Japan, Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore, he opined that "no other big power like the US, the European Union or even India is subject to so many unfriendly or hostile accusations from its neighbors."

He described China's diplomatic policy as "based on four strategic principles: big powers are key partners, neighboring countries are primary partners, developing countries are the foundation of China’s diplomacy and multilateral institutions are important platforms" and, in order to implement its policy, "adheres to the principles of 'dealing with neighboring countries as partners and treating them with goodwill' and of 'building an amicable, tranquil and prosperous neighbourhood."

His "several reasons" for China's policy problem - "some may be traced to concerned neighbors, others derive from within China itself" - include:
  • Neighbouring countries historically subjected to Imperial China's hegemony;
  • Some South Est Asia countries were under the threat of Red China’s “export of revolution” in the 1950s and 1960s;
  • The border war between China and Vietnam in 1979; and
  • Current water and/or island territorial disputes in the East Sea or East China Sea with Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Japan.
"Poor relations between China and its neighbours also partially result from China’s domestic conditions," Dr Junbo opined. "While China has long given up the 'export of revolution', it has yet to clarify its strategic intent of military modernisation. For many neighbouring countries, for such a big power to lack a clearly defined global strategy is dangerous."

To address this China "has to make real efforts to show it will contribute to the benefit and stability of the region when needed. For instance, in the aftermath of the ongoing global financial crisis, China should have taken the lead to jointly build a sound regional financial system that stabilised the regional financial market. China should honor its commitment to a peaceful rise with concrete measures to help safeguard regional security and ensure peace in the region."

Moreover, "China should act as a responsible actor that consistently adheres to shared principles; it should have a clear-cut, operational and pragmatic Asia strategy" that positions it as a "stabilising force, while maintaining its strategy to keep a balance with the influence of the US in this region."