China-ASEAN Strategic Partnership in Post-pandemic Era

2021-11-25 17:32FanZuojun
当代世界英文版 2021年4期


The year 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of commencing China-ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Dialogue Relations. The two sides have yielded fruitful results in such three pillar areas as political security, economy and trade and people-to-people exchange. They have also forged the largest trading partnership, the most substantial cooperation partnership and the most dynamic strategic partnership. In the meantime, the United States efforts to contain China by tightening alliance with its Asia-Pacific allies have adversely impacted China-ASEAN strategic partnership and posed new challenges to China-ASEAN relations and the security in Chinas neighborhood. In view of such development, China can tap into the innovation of international system to address its relations with ASEAN and with powers outside the region, build a higher level of China-ASEAN strategic partnership, and forge a closer China-ASEAN community with a shared future.

New Changes in China-ASEAN Relations amid COVID-19

In the face of the COVID-19, China and ASEAN have been working together to overcome difficulties with mutual assistance and jointly enhancing the strategic partnership. Meanwhile, the United States, in an effort to maintain its own hegemony, has been ganging up with its allies in the region, launching the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” and the “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD)” among others as its latest regional policy pillars and building blocs against China. Its moves have dealt a blow to developing China-ASEAN relations. In this context, China-ASEAN relations have gone through new dynamics.

I.Various Forms of Diplomacy Inject Political Momentum to China-ASEAN Relations

In the area of politics and diplomacy, China and ASEAN, aiming high at advancing the building of a community with a shared future and focusing on anti-epidemic cooperation and common development, have extensively carried out various forms of diplomacy, providing political momentum for the sound development of bilateral relations. China and ASEAN have continuously exchanged high-level visits, vigorously carried out “cloud diplomacy”, and convened a series of video conferences involving multi-level delegates from a diversity of areas, and strengthened cooperation in such fields as healthcare, poverty elimination and economic recovery, fully demonstrating the close strategic partnership between the two sides. In addition, Chinas “Spring Sprout Vaccine Program” has landed in many ASEAN countries, boosting the regions efforts to fight the COVID-19. But in the meantime, the United States, India and Japan among other countries have intensified public diplomacy towards ASEAN. The United States, in particular, has been politicizing the international cooperation on vaccines and attacking and discrediting China by wielding its power over public opinions and a large number of NGOs. The United States campaign has, to a certain extent, shaped peoples perception of China as a security threat and led to rising nationalism in some ASEAN countries, which has imposed negative impacts on China-ASEAN security cooperation.

II.China-ASEAN Economic and Trade Relations Embrace New Opportunities and New Platforms

As the COVID-19 accelerates the reshaping of global value chain and restructuring of production and trade chain in the Asia-Pacific region, China and ASEAN are embracing stronger complementarity in their economic and trade structures. The two sides boast closely connected supply chains, ever more integrated industrial chains and value chains and increasingly close bilateral economic and trade cooperation with digital economy as a highlight. According to the China-ASEAN trade vitality index, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore have a relatively high degree of vitality in their trade with China. Although China-ASEAN trade has suffered drastic fluctuation amid the COVID-19, Chinas effective prevention and control measures against the pandemic and considerable efforts to resume work and production have helped gurantee ASEANs imports from China. In addition, China and a number of ASEAN member states have build “green channels” for flow of commodities and kept unleashing the potential for bilateral economic and trade cooperation. In 2020, ASEAN surpassed the European Union (EU) to become Chinas largest trading partner in goods. And the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP) has also injected new impetus into bilateral cooperation. As important players in advancing the RCEP, China and ASEAN will welcome new opportunities for economic and trade cooperation within this framework.

III. Non-regional Powers Deep Intervention Creates Negative Impacts on China-ASEAN Security Cooperation

In the area of security cooperation, the situation in the South China Sea has always been a sensitive issue that affects all parties. In recent years, non-regional powers have kept intervening in relevant issues and interacted with some ASEAN countries, thus constantly stirring up the regional security situation. As shown by the statistics of the global media database, the United States, Australia, India and Japan are among the non-regional powers that are highly active in the South China Sea issue, and that major power rivalry has become and will continue to be a critical factor that influences the evolution of the South China Sea issue. Through deepening cooperation with ASEAN and especially strengthening military cooperation with ASEAN countries with sovereignty claims, such non-regional powers intend to use the South China Sea issue as a key to deliberately drive a wedge between China and ASEAN and blunt Chinas influence in the region. Such non-regional powers as the United States meddling has complicated the situation in the South China Sea and imposed adverse impacts on China-ASEAN security cooperation as well.

Profound Challenges Facing China-ASEAN Relations in the New Era

Multiple powers deep intervention in the ASEAN affairs has cast the shadow of major power rivalry over the relations between China and the ASEAN as a region. In the future, China-ASEAN relations will face the tough challenge of balancing and competing among multilateral interests.

On one hand, the United States is advancing the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” in an attempt to curb Chinas influence in the region. The Biden administration, since taking office, has added strategic weight to ASEAN. Based on geopolitical competition, the United States uses the “QUAD” to shape a small bloc. The country also revitalizes its partnership with ASEAN through high-level dialogues and attempts to build a network against China through multilateral and bilateral alliances. In addition, the Biden government has sent more public health aid to Southeast Asia countries and donated COVID-19 vaccines to ASEAN countries to diminish Chinas role in helping the region cope with the pandemic. In view of the Unite States moves, we can see that it is escalating geopolitical confrontation, consolidating its partnership network in Southeast Asia, and restoring its traditional influence in the region, with the intention of garnering more of its allies support for advancing its Indo-Pacific Strategy.

On the other hand, divergent attitudes of some ASEAN countries may hamper the stable growth of China-ASEAN relations. Inspired by the United States and other Western anti-China forces who exploit the pandemic to stigmatize China, certain political forces in some ASEAN countries have created anti-China sentiment. Meanwhile, the internal affairs of ASEAN countries also have impacts on the development of China-ASEAN relations. Opposition parties in some countries deliberately spread anti-China rhetoric, drum up the South China Sea issue, and provoke the public to oppose the ruling authorities existing policies on advancing the Belt and Road Initiative together with China and properly addressing the South China Sea issue. Although ASEAN countries have long adhered to the diplomatic strategy of “balance between great powers”, it cannot be ruled out that some ASEAN countries will pick sides on individual issues. Some external maneuvers, especially NGOs, have added fuel to the flames of such problems as environmental protection, government debts, labor issues and legal disputes occurring in cooperation with China and divert nationalist emotional outpour to these problems in some ASEAN countries, thus undermining the development of China-ASEAN relations.

Measures to Push Forward China-ASEAN Relations in the Post-pandemic Era

In consideration of domestic and international situations that are going through changes unseen in a century and in pursuit of stable and sound China-ASEAN relations in the new era, China needs to adjust its policies towards ASEAN according to the times and circumstances, join hands with ASEAN countries to engage in international affairs, properly manage differences among major powers, consolidate China-ASEAN economic and trade cooperation, communicate more effectively with ASEAN, and strive to build a closer China-ASEAN community with a shared future.

Firstly, China should work on international mechanisms and rules and properly address sensitive issues in its relations with ASEAN and other non-regional major powers. For one thing, China should keep to the general direction of dialogue and cooperation, maintain the overall situation of peace and development, and strengthen the establishment of cooperation mechanisms with ASEAN. The first is to seize the opportunity when ASEAN countries enjoy a higher degree of autonomy in developing cooperation mechanisms, so as to jointly put in place a diversity of dialogue and cooperation mechanisms. In the principle of “amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness” and without targeting third parties, more official and Track-1.5 security dialogues between China and ASEAN should be convened. Joint efforts should be made to form a more strongly binding multilateral security mechanism based on broad consensus and consolidate bilateral and multilateral relations featuring good neighborliness and friendship. The second is to deepen relations with ASEAN countries which have solid foundations for cooperation and are free of historical burdens, and strengthen relevant sub-regional cooperation. For example, efforts should be made to advance the building of the China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor and the Lancang-Mekong Sub-Regional Cooperation, further build China-ASEAN cooperation into mechanisms, and push forward the building of a neighborhood community with a shared future. The third is to support the ASEAN integration process and encourage the bloc to play a greater role in regional affairs. China should sort out ASEAN member states differentiated positions and demands, combine bilateral and multilateral approaches, push forward the building of regional mechanisms, strengthen mutual trust within a multilateral framework, and take a step-by-step approach to resolve relevant disputes. The fourth is to uphold multilateral platforms and strive to forge an inclusive new order in the Asia Pacific. China should lead the regional emerging powers including ASEAN to actively reform and improve the existing international order and expand common interests, uphold the free trading regime with the World Trade Organization at its core, support the process of globalization and reject unilateralism and protectionism. The fifth is to promote regular and institutional China-ASEAN public health emergency cooperation. To this end, a platform should be built for China-ASEAN cross-border health cooperation and emergency response and exploration should be made to tap the potential of regular and institutional cooperation in other non-traditional security areas.

For another, China should properly handle the South China Sea issue and safeguard regional unity. The dual impacts of changes unseen in a century and the COVID-19 add risks and sources of turbulence to the world. The Asia Pacific faces rising traditional and non-traditional threats. China and ASEAN countries should proceed from the overall situation, proactively manage differences, and further negotiate on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC). China insists that disputes should be resolved through dialogue and negotiation by parties directly concerned to fend off non-regional powers exploitation of ASEAN countries to interfere in the consultation on the COC and their attempt to contain and suppress Chinas development. In settling the South China Sea issue, besides adhering to the traditional practice of resolving disputes through diplomacy, China should attach importance to rule making through judicial process within the framework of international rules, try to engage in the establishment of international legal order and settle international disputes within this system. China should consider giving the COC an appropriate legal status and ensuring its legal effect so that the COC can play a concrete role in resolving disputes, preventing escalation of friction and conflicts and maintaining regional unity and stability. Moreover, exploration can be made to establish an independent dispute settlement body. To this end, parties directly concerned in the South China Sea issue and relevant neutral nations and organizations should be invited to jointly establish an arbitration body specifically dealing with commercial issues in the South China Sea, so as to avoid the United States and other non-regional powers undermining of regional affairs.

Secondly, further steps should be taken to deepen China-ASEAN economic and trade cooperation. Specifically, the first is to boost economic recovery and foster new growth drivers for cooperation. China should accelerate the implementation of RCEP rules as planned, promote investment and trade contacts with ASEAN, support ASEANs efforts to steadily reopen economy, resume work and production, develop a new type of infrastructure, and vigorously expand new areas of cooperation. The second is to enhance regional integration of China and ASEANs industrial chains, supply chains and value chains and foster a new development paradigm to jointly grapple with the global economic crisis and globalization at low ebb caused by the pandemic. China should vigorously carry out capacity cooperation with ASEAN, turn Guangxi, Yunnan, Hainan and other provinces adjacent to ASEAN into regional processing and manufacturing bases and emerging industrial bases connected with ASEAN, set up a comprehensive opening-up pilot zone for ASEAN cooperation in Guangxi and expand the authorization for ASEAN cooperation. China should work along cross-border industrial chains to boost processing trade and drive the development of such trade in services as data information, logistics and finance. The third is to seek synergy between the Belt and Road Initiative and ASEANs planned infrastructure investment projects, base their efforts on multilateral and pluralistic economic cooperation arrangements, establish an international advisory panel involving Chinese and foreign experts, strengthen forward-looking research on the new situation and new challenges of regional economic cooperation, and channel more investment from state-owned enterprises, private enterprises and joint ventures to ASEAN countries. The fourth is to ride the tide of digital economy, speed up the exploration of digital transformation and development, and intensify China-ASEAN cooperation in digital technology for epidemic prevention and control, digital infrastructure and smart cities among various fields. The two sides can also create new highlights of cooperation in such areas as ecological environment protection, disaster prevention and mitigation, climate change and poverty reduction, and continuously inject new impetus into cooperation.

Thirdly, efforts should be made to promote people-to-people bond and build a closer China-ASEAN community with a shared future. On one hand, China should strengthen exchanges with ASEAN countries through political parties, governments and NGOs, so as to fend off misinformation and negative propaganda against China by individual parties in ASEAN countries and clear up some countries misunderstandings about China in a timely manner. China and ASEAN countries can regularly organize film festivals, art festivals, cultural years, TV weeks and book exhibitions among various activities, and set up earmarked funds for joint creating high-quality radio programs, films and television dramas. On the other hand, China should make greater efforts to attract people from ASEAN countries to visit China for study, sightseeing and academic exchanges, provide government scholarships for students from ASEAN, and enable more exchange of students through transnational joint education programs by means of “bringing in and going out”. China may explore the introduction of “one-year internship visa” for ASEAN students to work in China after graduation. With such experience, when going back to their homelands, the students can engage in people-to-people exchanges, share with their fellow countrymen a panoramic and multidimensional view of the real China and pioneer in advancing the building of China-ASEAN community with a shared future.

Fan Zuojun is Vice President and professor of Guangxi University, Director of China-ASEAN Information Harbor Institute of Big Data Research