Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong paid a five-day visit to China last week. While meeting his Singaporean counterpart in Beijing, Premier Li Keqiang said, “We hope that Singapore, taking the rotating chair of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this year, will continue to play a constructive role in enhancing China-ASEAN ties and further contribute to regional peace, stability and prosperity.”
Lee later attended the Boao Forum for Asia annual conference in Hainan Province, at which he delivered a speech for the opening session. He was not the only ASEAN leader to take part in the forum. Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, was also in attendance at the conference. This is a strong signal that ASEAN attaches great importance to its ties with China.
As a regional international organization, ASEAN was founded in 1967, just marking its 50th anniversary in August last year. ASEAN consists of 10 countries and has a total population of more than 650 million.
The attitude of ASEAN nations towards China was once deeply influenced by the United States. At the outset of their organization, ASEAN countries were quite antagonistic towards China. But in 1971, with the announcement of the Kuala Lumpur Declaration, ASEAN shifted its policy and aimed to build itself into a free, liberal and neutral organization. Their attitude changed terrifically in 1972 after then-U.S. President Richard Nixon made a landmark visit to China.
With geographic proximity, China has regarded ASEAN as a priority in “neighboring diplomacy” for many years. This year marks the 15th anniversary of China’s strategic partnership with ASEAN. China has also been ASEAN’s biggest trading partner for nine consecutive years. In 2017, Sino-ASEAN bilateral trade reached as high as US$514 billion. The “10+1” mechanism and the Belt and Road Initiative are further injecting impetus into bilateral ties.
Furthermore, China plans to build three railways connecting its southwestern regions with various ASEAN nations. China and Malaysia are also joining hands to develop the “Two Countries Twin Parks” program, which involves building Qinzhou Industrial Park in China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Kuantan Industrial Park in Malaysia. With the exception of Singapore, which is small and rich, Chinese investment is very important for the infrastructure development and industrial upgrading of ASEAN nations.
Besides a close economic partnership, ASEAN nations share many similarities and common ground with China. They were once invaded by the United States or Japan, so all of them have a strong desire to be independent and get rid of poverty. Moreover, ASEAN countries have a similar cultural root and worldview with China. They are also deeply influenced and nourished by Confucius thought.
Compared with the disintegrating European Union (EU), ASEAN countries are very united. In 1973, then-Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said, “When two big elephants fight, the whole grassland will be destroyed.” Based on such a philosophy, ASEAN as a whole and its member nations are skilled at striking a wonderful balance in managing relations with big powers. For example, in order to cater to different demands, Myanmar has set up three special economic zones: the Dawei economic zone mainly attracts investment from Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and other ASEAN countries; the special economic zone in Kyaukpyu is supported by China; and the Thilawa economic zone mainly lures capital from Japan.
Despite the fact that China’s relationship with ASEAN has witnessed steady progress in recent years, there are still many challenges facing them. For example, China has had territorial disputes over the South China Sea for decades with some ASEAN countries. And as the United States embraces its pivot-to-Asia policy, tension in the region may escalate.
In August 2017, the Chinese and Southeast Asian foreign ministers adopted a negotiating framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea, which was hailed as a key consensus and marked a milestone in peacefully resolving the issue. It has also proved that even though some countries outside the region insist on instigating and provoking troubles in the South China Sea, China and ASEAN countries are fully capable of handling the issue themselves.
(The author is the editor-in-chief of the Shenzhen Daily with a Ph.D. from the Journalism and Communication School of Wuhan University.)