Published: 15:22, November 26, 2021 | Updated: 11:38, November 29, 2021
China, ASEAN upgrade relations
By Xu Wei in Beijing and Yang Han and Prime Sarmiento in Hong Kong

President Xi Jinping chairs the ASEAN-China Special Summit to Commemorate the 30th Anniversary of ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations, via video link from Beijing, on Nov 22. (LI XIANG / XINHUA)

President Xi Jinping and leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations jointly mapped out a new vision for future cooperation on Nov 22, as the two sides elevated bilateral relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership.

At a virtual summit commemorating the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-China dialogue relations, Xi announced a number of measures to further deepen ties, pledging to offer another 150 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to the bloc, as well as $1.5 billion in development aid over the next three years.

During his first group meeting with leaders from the 10-member bloc, Xi reiterated that China will unswervingly regard ASEAN as a high priority in its neighborhood diplomacy, support the bloc’s unity and community building, its centrality in the regional architecture, and it playing a bigger role in regional and international affairs.

He said the elevation of bilateral ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership, a new milestone in bilateral relations, will inject fresh impetus into regional and global peace, stability, prosperity and growth.

Analysts welcomed the announcement, saying the new partnership agreement will help take relations between the two sides to new heights, benefiting the region and beyond.

Suthiphand Chirathivat, executive director of the ASEAN Studies Center at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said the upgraded ties will further deepen integration between China and ASEAN beyond trade liberalization and facilitation to encompass areas including digitalization, the green economy, human resources development and connectivity.

Noting that Xi called for expanded cooperation in emerging areas like the digital economy, Suthiphand, who is also executive director of Thai conglomerate Central Group, said he sees opportunities for his group, which has been working with Chinese internet giant JD in e-commerce and fintech services over the past few years.

During his speech, President Xi summed up the experience from bilateral relations over the past 30 years in four respects, saying that the gains from bilateral cooperation can be attributed to geographical proximity, cultural affinity and, more importantly, the fact that both sides have embraced the development trend of the times and “made the right historical choice”.

ASEAN became China’s largest trading partner in 2020, and trade continued to maintain strong growth momentum this year, reaching 4.08 trillion yuan ($639 billion) in the nine months to September, up 21.1 percent over the corresponding period last year.

The president made a five-point proposal for China-ASEAN relations to go forward, highlighting the need for the two sides to jointly build a peaceful, safe, secure, prosperous, beautiful and amicable home.

“We need to pursue dialogue instead of confrontation, build partnerships instead of alliances, and make concerted efforts to address the various negative factors that might threaten or undermine peace,” he said.

He went on to say that China will never seek hegemony or bully smaller countries, and that the nation supports ASEAN’s efforts to build a nuclear weapon-free zone.

He unveiled a China-ASEAN health shield initiative, which, in addition to vaccine donations, includes an additional $5 million donation to the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund, joint vaccine production and technology transfer and helping the bloc build a primary-level public health system and talent training.

He reiterated the importance of safeguarding stability in the South China Sea and making it a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.

The nation is ready to import more quality products from ASEAN, including buying up to $150 billion worth of agricultural products from ASEAN in the next five years, he said, adding that cooperation between the Belt and Road Initiative and the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific should be stepped up.

Pacita Juan, trustee of the Philippine Women’s Economic Network, said the establishment of the China-ASEAN comprehensive strategic partnership is good for the region, and will help ASEAN member states like the Philippines to supply tropical food products to China.

New opportunities can be explored in the trade of bananas and other fruit, and especially organic products, said Juan, whose network in Manila promotes the economic empowerment of women.

Academic Siah Hwee Ang said it was a good move on the part of both sides to upgrade their ties.

China and ASEAN will grow faster due to their mutual support, said Ang, a professor of international business and strategy at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. Their cooperation will benefit the global economy, the scholar said.

Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at consultancy IHS Markit, said: “President Xi highlighted the strong economic partnership that has already been built between China and ASEAN.

“One important pathway to strengthening economic cooperation has been through the establishment of free trade areas.”

China-ASEAN economic ties “have grown at a very rapid rate over the past three decades”, he said, while noting that trade in goods between the two sides rose to $685 billion in 2020.

“The wide range of new initiatives proposed by China to strengthen bilateral economic ties with ASEAN will accelerate bilateral trade and investment flows,” said Biswas, adding that China’s substantial new development assistance initiatives for the ASEAN nations will also help to support their economic recovery from the pandemic.

Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist at Griffith University in Australia and a former secretary of supervisory bodies at Indonesia’s National Health Insurance, said collaboration between ASEAN and regional partners, including China, is important for establishing health security at regional and global levels.

“ASEAN (member states) must have collaboration with their regional partners in strengthening their health systems because there’s a big disparity between the more developed and less developed countries (in the region),” said Budiman, who helped the Indonesian Ministry of Health with its pandemic management strategy over 20 years.

As many ASEAN countries are busy with their domestic COVID-19 situation, Budiman said it is necessary to cooperate with partners like China, which has a big capacity in technology and finance.

Austin Ong, a researcher at the Integrated Development Studies Institute in Manila, said the Chinese president’s speech is significant as it presents both a comprehensive vision and specific implementable programs, from pandemic cooperation to trade and people-to-people exchanges.

“President Xi’s speech provides not only a frank assessment of current dynamics and geopolitical tensions in the region but more importantly a forward-looking prognosis that is combined with a plan of action for a more peaceful and progressive ASEAN region founded on the pillars of respect, cooperation and people-centric development,” said Ong.

ASEAN, founded in 1967, is made up of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

In his speech, Xi said China and ASEAN need to fully harness the role of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, begin work to upgrade the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area at an early date, and enhance the level of trade and investment liberalization and facilitation.

China will provide 1,000 items of advanced and applicable technology to ASEAN and launch a program for 300 young scientists from ASEAN to come to China for exchanges in the next five years, he said.

Xi stressed the need to actively consider the resumption of international travel in the post-pandemic period, saying that China will enhance cooperation with ASEAN in vocational education and mutual recognition of diplomas and increase the number of recipients of the China-ASEAN Young Leaders Scholarship.

The two sides issued a joint statement after the summit, which reaffirmed cooperation in areas including politics, the economy, society, culture and regional and international affairs.

China’s Assistant Foreign Minister Wu Jianghao said the summit between Xi and ASEAN leaders opened a new chapter for the growth of bilateral relations.

ASEAN leaders expressed their readiness to work with China to develop a meaningful, substantive and mutually beneficial comprehensive strategic partnership, he said.

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