Opinion

China and ASEAN: Cooperation
or conflict?

Rising tensions in the South China Sea have changed recent ASEAN-China relations from cooperation to potential conflict. Yet there is now agreement to begin consultations on a Code of Conduct to manage the issue. Since his appointment, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also visibly upgraded ASEAN engagement.

Marking the 10th anniversary of their strategic partnership, a recent High Level Forum proceeded positively with high officials and think tank experts from both sides. Is there substance beneath the ceremonies? Are relations turning more positive?

This won’t be the first time to patch over difficulties. The Chinese Communist Party’s post WWII support for communist movements in the region meant that diplomatic relations were not normalized until 1991. By 1995, the Mischief reef incident triggered differences — then as now — over the South China Sea.

China responded however not with aggression but a “charm offensive”. The bold suggestion of a free trade agreement not only created Asia’s largest market. Beijing’s offer to give an “early harvest” of preferences showed empathy to the anxieties of smaller neighbors.

China emerged as the ASEAN’s largest trade partner and closest collaborator. A longer arc across centuries shows that civilizational connections across the sea and land have been largely positive and peaceful.

Yet history can only do so much for present problems. While the ASEAN-China forum hosted by Thailand was largely positive, other voices and events intrude.

The Philippines and Vietnam are pushing for full negotiations on the Code of Conduct — and not a more cautious “consultation”. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi responded to caution against “rushing”. There may be a point in managing expectations — the preceding Declaration of Conduct, after all, took the better part of a decade.

But there are more pressures today. Manila recently bolstered its navy by accepting a Hamilton-class cutter from the USA — and Washington DC has said it will push China to speed up negotiations. Japan — with differences with China over islands further north — unveiled a naval vessel that can carry and deploy helicopters, its largest since WWII.

For China itself, military modernization 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, cooperation on navigation safety and the marine environment should progress. Most importantly, actual practices by military and other agencies in everyday exchange must emphasize prudence.

Otherwise, the best days for neighborly cooperation are past and all should prepare for rising competition rises and possible conflict. This can be further complicated by Japan and the USA, two other major partners who have given ASEAN more attention of late.

There are issues beyond the South China Sea that both can work on together. There is need, for instance, for infrastructure and investment to connect between the two.

Yet even 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 to assist ASEAN — especially the developing countries on its borders — without expecting to dominate them.

For ASEAN, there must be wisdom to cooperate 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 Summit, to be hosted by Brunei, aims for a candid dialogue that helps build strategic trust in the Asia-Pacific. But it can only succeed if all powers are equally welcome and participative.

The RCEP similarly hubs around ASEAN and will bring in all of Asia — including India and Australia-New Zealand. It can only boost economic integration across the region if major economies show commitment.

In the wake of the region’s crisis of 1997, Asian cooperation grew, and the ASEAN-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 will continue to depend on the American alliance system, while the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) for economic and trade integration will take center stage. This can negatively impact China and many ASEAN members that currently 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 current problems and upgrading ASEAN-China cooperation will be essential.

The writer is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and was invited to speak at the recent High Level ASEAN-China Forum held by the Thai government.

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