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Sino-ASEAN Strategic Partnership: The Missing Trust

Dr Jagannath P. Panda was Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • August 07, 2013

    The China-ASEAN strategic partnership celebrated its 10th anniversary on August 2, 2013 in Bangkok. The host Thailand coordinated this landmark partnership meeting and one of the talking points at this event was “China’s rise”. Sihasak Phuangketkeow, the permanent secretary of Thailand’s Foreign Affairs Ministry stated, “… China is rising and we believe that this is definitely a peaceful rise.” The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed concerns over China’s rise and stated that “there is nothing to be surprised” and that China’s development is an “opportunity for ASEAN”. While the decade old strategic partnership between China and ASEAN is certainly an occasion for celebration from the purview of their bilateral engagement; it needs to be asked why both sides still have to reassure each other about ‘China’s rise’. Does this imply that the ASEAN is still skeptical over the intent of China’s rise?

    Zheng Bijian, the then Vice-Principal of the Central Party School of China, articulated the “peaceful rise” of China theory in late 2003 during the Boao Forum for Asia. Later, the Chinese leadership under Hu Jintao modified this debate to justify China’s rise, development and progress in regional and global politics. The then Premier Wen Jiabao also reiterated the main aspects of China’s development for ASEAN at the Seventh China-ASEAN Summit at Bali in October 2003, assuring the ASEAN community that China’s development is an “opportunity” for them. The debate over China’s rise has resurfaced during the celebration of the 10th anniversary event of Sino-ASEAN strategic partnership. Maritime politics, primarily the dispute on South China Sea, between China and some ASEAN members has revived this debate. Given China’s recent maritime assertiveness in South China Sea, mistrust remains between China and ASEAN today, prompting many to review China’s rise. Vietnam and Philippines in particular have been wary of China’s attitude in the regional and neighbourhood context. Meanwhile, China has lost no opportunity to reassure its neighbours about its rise, and this too was observed at the strategic partnership event. China has defended its rise in foreign policy dealings, and has officially pronounced it as “peaceful development”. The White Paper, China’s Peaceful Development, released by China’s Information Office of the State Council in 2011 viewed that the theory of “peaceful development” is a strategic choice for China.

    The “peaceful development” dialogue is vital for ASEAN because one of the core essence of China’s peaceful development campaign was to convince its neighbours that Beijing’s rise is not detrimental to their strategic interests. Besides, this is relevant when China has emerged as a stronger political power vis-à-vis as second-largest economy in the world. Since 2003, time and again, leaderships in China and ASEAN have discussed about China’s rise and its developmental model, and have brought new insights to advance mutual trust and reduce tensions. Hitherto, what needs to be seen is whether these discussions have been beneficial in Sino-ASEAN bilateral engagement and have really helped improving trust between the two. At the official level, the main thrust of Sino-ASEAN strategic partnership is to develop a comprehensive bilateral engagement. In October 2003, the Sino-ASEAN strategic partnership was forged through a joint declaration, titled A Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity. Since then both have signed various deals to boost this partnership. In spite this, an inclusive Sino-ASEAN engagement is missing.

    From 2003 onwards, the core of the strategic engagement has been trade and economic relationship. Beijing has emerged as ASEAN’s biggest trading partner and ASEAN as China’s third-largest trading partner. Statistics suggest that bilateral trade has increased four times since 2002, and trade contacts between the two sides now figure around $210 billion. China had a trade surplus of $8.5 billion by 2012. ASEAN still remains one of China’s most preferred destinations for foreign direct investment (FDI), and Beijing stays connected with ASEAN in plus-one, plus-three and plus-six institutional mechanisms. Both sides started negotiating a free trade agreement (FTA) in 2000, and formally implemented it in 2010 as CAFTA. Under CAFTA, 90 per cent of ASEAN’s exports to China are duty-free. Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia are likely to lift duties on Chinese exports by 2015. The rest six ASEAN members are already allowing duty-free imports from China. The Chinese Vice-Commerce Minister, Gao Yan, recently stated optimistically that trade contacts between the two sides would reach $500 billion by 2015. Foreign Minister Wang Yi also advocated, during the anniversary event, for further upgrading CAFTA and to accelerate progress in all directions.

    It may be noted, however, that elsewhere in the world strategic partnerships are not all about trade and economic engagement. A strategic partnership must also have political and strategic bearings of a bilateral relationship. In the case of the Sino-ASEAN strategic partnership this seems to be problematic, specifically given the dispute over the South China Sea. The dispute has been discussed previously, and later in September this year, the two sides are scheduled to hold the sixth Senior Officials Meeting and the ninth Joint Working Group Meeting on the issue. These meetings are intended to discuss and push forward a few modalities over key technicalities and documents. Reports indicate that these meetings will attempt to implement in full-length the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), which has been a matter of disagreement among ASEAN countries so far. The 2012 ASEAN summit in Cambodia failed to evolve a code of conduct (COC), exposing ASEAN’s internal divisions over the issue. Till recently, finding consensus over the COC has been a difficult enterprise. The intent was, however, reiterated at the recent anniversary. Wang Yi also stressed expanding China-ASEAN maritime security cooperation and spoke about ensuring an “Asia Way” for common development and an “ASEAN way” for resolving existing differences in the region.

    China insists on an “Asia Way” and advocates an “ASEAN Way” for two correlated reasons. First, China does not want the ASEAN countries to seek outside powers’ intervention on maritime issues, mainly the US, which has generally been critical of China’s assertive behaviour on the South China Sea issue, and have asked for freedom of navigation. Therefore, Beijing has urged ASEAN to work out a consensus over the COC and has tried to push the DOC. Second, Beijing wants to keep outside powers away from Asian politics, so that it can easily remain the most dominant power in the region. This is also advocated keeping in mind the rapid growth and evolution of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as some ASEAN countries have already joined this ongoing Asia-Pacific trade liberalization negotiations process. The Chinese leadership has stressed the “Asia Way” of forging unity and cooperation between the two sides, where China aims to push forward the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with ASEAN members.

    The China-ASEAN strategic partnership has helped ASEAN to stay connected institutionally with China. Beijing too realizes the significance of this strategic partnership, which extends beyond the purview of bilateralism today. However, no matter how much assurance and promise Beijing articulates about the scope and content of its own development and rise, the ASEAN community and the South-East Asian region would still continue to debate China’s development, at least till China displays a more moderate posture over the South China Sea dispute.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.