China and its Southeast Asian neighbours need more strategic capital

Author: Vannarith Chheang, CICP

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the China–ASEAN strategic partnership.

Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister, Wang Yi (left), and his Indonesian counterpart, Marty Natalegawa (right), during a news conference in Jakarta, Indonesia, 02 May 2013. Wang Yi was on an official visit to Indonesia. (Photo: AAP)

Early this year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited the ASEAN Secretariat and four ASEAN member countries to strengthen mutual understanding and strategic trust, and show support for ASEAN community building. Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan also visited Brunei and held a consultative meeting with the 10 ASEAN Defence Ministers on the sideline of the seventh ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting to exchange views on regional security issues and discuss measures to reduce tensions in the region, particularly in the South China Sea. Yet there is still a long way to go before a true partnership between ASEAN and China can take hold, with greater investments in strategic trust required.

The US pivot to Asia and the increasing role of other middle powers in the region has challenged China’s regional policy. In its 2013 Defense White Paper, China observes, ‘The Asia-Pacific region has become an increasingly significant stage for world economic development and strategic interaction between major powers. The US is adjusting its Asia-Pacific security strategy, and the regional landscape is undergoing profound changes’. In response to this changing political and strategic context, China needs to review and redefine its regional strategy by enhancing and nurturing regional dialogue and consultation mechanisms and institutions.

In the last two decades, China has successfully implemented its soft-power policy in the region. Since the 1990s, China has softly approached Southeast Asia through deepening economic ties, development cooperation and cultural diplomacy. During the Asian financial crisis in 1997, China did not depreciate its currency; instead, China helped regional countries to cope with the crisis through both economic and financial measures. China is becoming the region’s key development partner and development assistance provider, especially in the less-developed economies like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

Economically, China has pursued its soft power agenda through the establishment of the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA), which came into force in 2010. In 2012, the volume of trade between China and ASEAN was US$400 billion and the bilateral investment volume reached US$100 billion. China has also provided scholarship and training opportunities to students and government officials from ASEAN member countries.

China has actively engaged in developing rules-based regional relations to enhance diplomatic and political trust. It became the dialogue partner of ASEAN in 1996. In 1997, the first ASEAN–China Summit issued a joint statement highlighting a 21st century-oriented partnership of good neighbourliness and mutual trust. In 2003, China acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation to further ensure peaceful development of China with its neighbours and started to implement a comprehensive strategic partnership between China and ASEAN.

China is also active in strengthening regional security institutions such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus. Here, non-traditional security cooperation is the principle area of cooperation between China and its Southeast Asian neighbours. China has supported regional countries in capacity building and collectively addressing human security issues such as natural disasters relief and humanitarian assistance, transnational crimes, terrorism and maritime security. On the issue of the South China Sea, China and ASEAN have made some painstaking progress towards a code of conduct.

Yet China needs to work much harder to earn strategic trust and improve its relationship with Southeast Asia. Without a strong relationship, China will face substantial challenges in projecting its power to the wider Asia Pacific region and the world at large.

The principle impediment to a deeper relationship is China’s maritime power projection and marine economy, together with the increasing assertiveness and presence of Chinese civilian and military forces in the South China Sea. These factors are increasing tensions between China and other claimants, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam. This tension increases some perceptions of China as a threat in the Southeast Asian region and breeds distrust. It threatens to derail the hard-won good relationships between China and its Southeast Asian neighbours. If it does not effectively address these challenges, China may lose certain strategic advantages to other major powers in establishing and enlarging strategic and economic space in the region.

China and ASEAN share a commitment to not allow tensions in the South China Sea to negatively affect their bilateral relations. But they still need to do more to adjust to the new and dynamic regional security landscape. Of crucial importance is the development of strategic capital, which includes trust, confidence, mutual respect and mutual interests. Harmonising national and regional interests is key to this.

Through the development and improvement of the ASEAN-centered regional institutions, the enhancement of strategic transparency, and the maintaining of frank and sincere consultation and negotiation at both bilateral and multilateral levels, China and ASEAN can enhance their strategic capital and realise their common interests. Otherwise, the region will remain strategically divided, which is in nobody’s interest.

Vannarith Chheang is Executive Director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.

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