ASEAN-China Relations from a Filipino Diplomat’s Perspective

In last week’s PH.CN, I shared Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s thoughts on China-ASEAN relations. Premier Wen in summary pointed out that China’s relations with ASEAN over the past 20 years have moved from a dialogue relationship to good-neighborly relations and to a relationship of strategic economic cooperation. Regarding territorial conflicts, Premier Wen reiterated that it should be resolved between the countries concerned (excluding the United States) through peaceful consultations and joint development efforts. On the presence of the United States in ASEAN, he mentioned that an effective and clear mechanism must be drawn with ASEAN and only ASEAN taking the lead.

For this week’s issue of PH.CN, to balance the Chinese perspective on ASEAN-China relations, allow me to share to you the thoughts of distinguished Filipino diplomat Rodolfo Severino.

Former Ambassador Severino was the Secretary-General of ASEAN from 1998 to 2002. He served as Third, Second, and First Secretary in the Philippine Embassy in the United States from 1967 to 1974. He played an important role in the normalisation of relations between the Philippines and China, and thereafter, served as Chargé d’Affaires of the Philippine Embassy in Beijing from 1976 to 1978. From 1989 to 1992, Mr. Severino served as the Philippines’ Ambassador to Malaysia. In 2011, he released his geopolitical book Where in the World is the Philippines?

Former Ambassador Severino on ASEAN-China Relations: Past, Present, and Future:

I was asked some years ago what I thought China’s most significant achievement was in its relations with ASEAN. I replied that it was this: China has managed no longer to be viewed as a threat by the ASEAN member-countries. More positively, Southeast Asians see China, with increasing equanimity and even satisfaction, as a rising Asian power. I believe that this has also been ASEAN’s achievement, a tribute to its member countries’ sobriety, sophistication, astuteness, and sense of realism and proportion.


The Past

The significance of this remarkable achievement on both sides, this dramatic, albeit measured, turnaround, can best be appreciated if one looks back on Southeast Asia’s perspective on China in the not-too-distant past. Not so long ago, Southeast Asian countries viewed China as a clear and present danger to their security. In non-communist Southeast Asia, China was seen as supporting subversive and rebellious forces that sought to overthrow regimes in place by force –Malaya, Thailand, the Philippines. The New Order in Indonesia attributed to China upport for the attempted coup in that country in 1965. At the height of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, China was perceived as instigating anti-government riots in Burma. In 1974, Chinese forces seized the Paracels from Vietnamese troops stationed there. In 1988, the Chinese and Vietnamese navies clashed fatally in the Spratlys. Up to the early 1990s, Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Singapore withheld formal diplomatic relations from the People’s Republic of China. As recently as 1995, the Philippine discovery of a substantial Chinese presence on Mischief Reef, located well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, sent alarms all across Southeast Asia.


The Present

Today, all Southeast Asian countries have diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic on the basis of one China. Despite the disagreements and differences, ASEAN and China have had occasion to work together on specific problems in the past.

In the 1980s, ASEAN and China found common cause in resisting forcible regime change in Cambodia, consulting each other frequently. They cooperated in bringing about a political settlement of the Cambodian problem in 1991. China was the only country in the world that served both as a country of first asylum for the Indochinese asylum-seekers and as a country of permanent settlement for them.

By the mid-1990s, China had emerged as a strong economic power and a potential

strategic partner, so that ASEAN granted it the status, first of a “consultative partner” and then, in 1996, of a full Dialogue Partner. China was a founding participant in the ASEAN Regional Forum, engaging constructively in political and security matters not only with ASEAN and its members but also with non-ASEAN participants in the ARF, like the United States, Russia, Japan and Australia.

China has formed part of the Asian side in the ASEAN-initiated Asia Europe Meeting, started in 1996 and now a going concern. It is a keystone of the ASEAN Plus Three process, which now covers 20 areas of cooperation and almost 50 mechanisms to manage them, including annual ASEAN Plus Three and ASEAN Plus One Summits. In the Chiang Mai Initiative, which is part of the ASEAN Plus Three process, China is a party to several of the 16 bilateral currency swap and repurchase agreements. China’s proposal for an ASEAN-China free trade area and ASEAN’s quick acceptance of it led the way for similar ASEAN FTA arrangements with others, including those with South Korea, India, and Japan. It helped to lend momentum to the economic cooperation process between the ASEAN Free Trade Area and the Closer Economic Relations of Australia and New Zealand. The trade in goods and trade in services components of the ASEAN-China Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation, signed in 2002, are now in place. Indeed, China and ASEAN have each rapidly become one of the other’s leading trading partners. In 2007, Hong Kong aside, the two were each other’s fourth largest trading partner, after the United States, Japan and the European Union. Chinese and ASEAN companies have also started to invest in each other’s country.

China has built or improved transport links with mainland Southeast Asia, planning to construct oil and gas pipelines through Myanmar, widening navigational channels on the Mekong, financing roads from China to the countries to its south, and probably funding another bridge across the Mekong between Laos and Thailand. Special links have been forged between ASEAN’s and China’s ministries of trade and industry in the ASEAN Mekong Basin Development Cooperation process, whose flagship project is the Singapore-Kunming Rail Link. The SKRL would be a further transport connection between southern China and mainland Southeast Asia.

For four years, China has been putting up the ASEAN-China Expo in Nanning, the Chinese provincial capital that is the closest to ASEAN territory. China has also been organising the China-ASEAN Business and Investment Summit on the occasion of the Expo. China has agreed to set up an ASEAN Centre to promote ASEAN exports to China and Chinese investments and tourism in ASEAN, similar to a long-established facility in Tokyo.

China has helped ease tensions arising from conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea. It has done so by agreeing to discuss the matter with ASEAN as a group in place of its former preference for dealing with individual Southeast Asian claimants. Such discussions led to the conclusion in 2002 of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the Southeast China Sea. A significant development, this joint declaration committed both ASEAN and China to self-restraint, to the non-use of force, to the peaceful settlement of disputes, to refraining from occupying unoccupied features in the area, and to agreeing on a more formal code of conduct in the future. All ASEAN countries have continued to support the concept of one China, discouraging the Taiwan authorities from moving towards independence or a separate national identity for Taiwan.


The Future

Expanding amicable ASEAN-China relations cannot but be good for the region and for the world. Obviously, amidst the dynamism that characterises the nature of international relations, these positive trends need to be maintained, nurtured and built upon. In this regard, I wish at this point to proffer some frank, unsolicited advice.

First, for China. It would be helpful, indeed essential, for China to be even more transparent than it already is about the state of its military modernisation, including the components of its defence budget. Without revealing military secrets, this is to allay fears and suspicions on the part of some Southeast Asians about China’s long-term strategic intentions in the region.

The conflicting claims in the South China Sea remain flashpoints in ASEAN-China relations. Accordingly, China should agree to move towards an eventual settlement of the jurisdictional claims, even as it laudably engages in confidence-building activities with Southeast Asian claimants. One step might be to clarify the nine bars enclosing the entire South China Sea on Chinese maps and what they signify. At the same time, Beijing should refrain from concluding separate commercial or strategic deals with individual Southeast Asian claimants, deals that may be misconstrued as reflecting divide-and-rule tactics.

China might go out of its way to make sure – and assure the countries affected – that its activities related to the Mekong do not do ecological harm to the lands and communities downstream or to the river itself. Among these activities are the construction of the series of dams on the upper reaches of the Mekong and the dredging of the rapids on the great waterway.

Finally, Chinese firms have been occasionally enmeshed in cases of corruption in some ASEAN countries. Being a developing country, and perhaps for other reasons, China is not a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. However, China may wish to accede to the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention. Of the 37 parties to the convention, seven are not members of the OECD.

Next, for ASEAN. Southeast Asian governments and firms have increasingly viewed China and its companies as formidable competitors for markets – in Southeast Asia itself and elsewhere – and for foreign direct investment. This is an inevitable consequence of China’s surge as an economic power and its engagement in economic activities similar to those undertaken by several Southeast Asian countries. Competition is basically good for economies and for companies. In the face of fair Chinese competition, ASEAN countries have to strengthen the competitiveness of their own economies as well as their companies. There is no other way. A major part of this endeavour is undertaking fundamental domestic economic and even political reforms, including radical improvements in the investment climate as well as in corporate governance. Larger investments in infrastructure are one measure. Reducing corruption is another. Policy consistency is still another.

Another avenue for strengthening economic competitiveness is the integration of the regional economy. This would bring about an integrated market with a population almost half of China’s and a combined gross domestic product almost equivalent to that of China. ASEAN has laid the foundations for regional economic integration. Its member-states should now seriously carry out their commitments in this regard. The Southeast Asian claimants should, as should China, clarify the nature of their claims to the South China Sea. This is specifically true of the Philippines and Vietnam. At the same time, they ought to refrain from concluding with China separate commercial or scientific deals that have strategic or legal implications. Such implications could be adverse to themselves or to ASEAN as a whole and, therefore, carry the seeds of future controversy.

Downstream Mekong states should not hesitate to raise issues pertaining to the possible ecological harm that Chinese activities may do to their communities that are dependent on the river.

To build upon the favourable developments in ASEAN-China economic relations,the two sides should embark on serious discussions on two subjects. One is about how China can effectively help ASEAN overcome the obstacles to Southeast Asia’s economic integration. The other is how to facilitate, through practical measures, trade and investment between ASEAN and China. Discussions on such measures should form part of the implementation of the 2002 ASEAN-China Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation.

At the same time, China and the ASEAN countries should strive for the utmost transparency in military and strategic terms. They will be neighbours forever, and they should know each other better.

In sum, the two sides should do everything in their power to keep their relationship as good as they are today and constantly better in the future. They owe it to themselves and to the world.

Photo credit:

J. Sun E.

Sun, a Filipino based in China, writes PH.CN on ProPinoy, a weekly column on Philippines-China relations, politics, history, and current events. He studied Political Science, History, and Foreign Languages in Philippines and China. Follow him on Twitter @phdotcn