China-ASEAN partnership has entered a critical juncture. Last year, in commemorating the 15th Anniversary of ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership, ASEAN and Chinese Leaders adopted a strategic partnership vision 2030 to further promote the closer cooperation for a mutually beneficial future of ASEAN and China.
Having said that there are many negative headlines, especially in Western medias, about ASEAN-China relations. The looming picture that the most media outlets have depicted, which has been promoted by foreign policy establishments in some countries, is a story related maritime dispute between China and some ASEAN claimant states in the South China Sea. Their narrative gives an impression that ASEAN and China have constantly been in diplomatic crisis. It is a misperception that needs to be addressed.
Despite the fact that the maritime dispute in the South China Sea exists and needs to be resolved once for all, it is not all about ASEAN-China relations. The truth of the matter is that ASEAN and China are now destined to working together more than ever before for a number of reasons.
Firstly, rising unilateralism and protectionism are posing significant threats to the multilateral system. Within this context, China and ASEAN need to double down their efforts to sustain and enhance an open and inclusive multilateral system in order to mitigate the risks and challenges stemming from increasing unilateralism and protectionism.
Moreover, as Europe and the US have moved inward to protectionism, might give a new momentum for ASEAN and China as well as other countries in East Asia to further integrate into a self-sustaining regional economic entity. In fact, the ongoing US-China trade war has offered an opportunity for East Asia to concentrate on regional production and supply chains. The possibility of shifting assembling of goods from China to Southeast Asian countries cannot be ruled out.
Secondly, there is an increasing convergence of interests between China and ASEAN to deepen regional integration and connectivity in order to respond the rising needs and expectations of their peoples. Currently, China is ASEAN’s largest trading partner, third largest external source of foreign direct investment (FDI). In this regard, enhanced economic interdependence, largely driven by the market forces, necessitates regulatory and institutional coordination and harmonization in order to facilitate economic cooperation. Upgrading China-ASEAN FTA and investment cooperation is needed.
Thirdly, there are many trans-regional, regional and sub-regional initiatives on connectivity, including the EU-Asia connectivity, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the ASEAN Master Plan on Connectivity (MPAC) and other connectivity projects in the Mekong sub-region. Since connectivity has become a priority for ASEAN and China, the two sides can work closer together to build synergies between and among those existing initiatives.
Three policy proposals are suggested here.
Firstly, China and ASEAN need to build synergy and develop a policy guideline and action plan to connect BRI with MPAC. There are several common areas that we can pull our resources together to realize our common goals such as physical infrastructure development and connectivity, cross-border trade and investment facilitation, and people-to-people exchanges. ASEAN has limited resources to implement MPAC. Hence it needs the support from the dialogue and development partners like China to help strengthen regional connectivity.
Secondly, ASEAN and China need to build synergy between the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) with ASEAN-China partnership. LMC is a fast-expanding sub-regional cooperation mechanism which has three main cooperation pillars reminiscent of those of ASEAN, from political security cooperation to economic and cultural and social cooperation. LMC plays a critical role in narrowing the development gap within ASEAN given the less developed economies of ASEAN are geopolitically located in the Mekong region (Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Myanmar). ASEAN cannot realize it community if it does not effectively reduce regional economic disparity.
Thirdly, there is a need to connect ASEAN-China partnership with national development strategy of each ASEAN member state. Cambodia, for instance, is thriving to integrate regional initiatives into its national development strategy but the challenge is how to do so in an effective and harmonious manner. We need to push further the ASEAN-China partnership to sub-regional and national dialogues so that we can deliver more concrete results for the people.
Let’s remember that whatever we do, whichever initiative we develop, we need to put the interests and wisdom of the people first. The Members of Parliament from ASEAN are accountable to their own constituents so ASEAN must deliver and benefit the local people, not just business elites.
ASEAN and China must work closer together to realize a genuine people-centred and people-oriented ASEAN and East Asian Community. The local community and endogenous knowledge must be empowered. The aspirations of the people must be reflected in the national and regional policy.
ASEAN-China partnership must aim to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 and contribute to the advancement of human dignity, social justice, social and economic inclusion, and sustainability of Asia. It is imperative for states to be well-prepared for geopolitical risks. But we should not be trapped in realpolitik deterministic mindset.
Suos Yara is Member of Parliament from Cambodia.