Five challenges for China and ASEAN as region faces rebalance of power

By Gao Yang Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/27 19:18:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

This year marks the 50th anniversary of ASEAN. ASEAN, with a total area of 4.46 million square kilometers and a population of nearly 600 million, has come a long way in political, economic and regional cooperation, becoming the main cooperation mechanism in Southeast Asia.

China attaches great importance to its relationship with ASEAN and regards ASEAN as a priority on its diplomatic agenda.

In 2003, China established the Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity with ASEAN and became the first country outside Southeast Asia to join in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. A China-ASEAN Free Trade Area was established in 2010.

The volume of trade between the two sides reached $472.1 billion in 2015, a 60-fold increase compared with $7.96 billion in 1991. Two-way investment totals $156.4 billion, 300 times more than 1991. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang once dubbed the current period as a diamond decade in the China-ASEAN relationship.

However, with the changes of regional and global situations, the following latent challenges that may affect the relationship between China and ASEAN in the near future are beginning to surface.

The first one is the uncertainty brought by the readjustment of regional and global orders. With the decline of US national power and the rise of emerging powers, the situation in Southeast Asia and the world is undergoing dramatic adjustments and changes.

The election of Donald Trump as US president and Brexit are regarded as the two big "black swan" events in international politics, generating significant impact on the existing order in Southeast Asia.

Trump abolished the Obama administration's Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy and announced withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. The Trump administration has made no statements or declarations on its policy on Southeast Asia so far. The uncertainty caused by the readjustment of regional and global orders has caused ASEAN countries to be more prudent in their diplomatic activities.

The second one is the mental distance of ASEAN countries from China. ASEAN countries are deeply influenced by the history, traditional culture and values of China. China is moving toward the center of the world stage, with its political and economic influence in ASEAN increasing day by day.
The asymmetry between China and ASEAN countries has led to fundamental differences in interests and perceptions of many regional issues, which caused some distress in these countries.

ASEAN countries, while benefiting from China, are worried what a strong China will do to them. ASEAN countries have adopted a strategy to balance China's growing influence. This has led to the situation of economic dependence on China with a promise of safety from the US.

The third one is a wedge strategy by powers outside Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia has been a focus in post-WWII international politics. Countries including the US, Japan and India are highly wary of the rise of China and its growing influence in the region. They have launched active diplomatic activities in the region, trying to drive a wedge between China and ASEAN countries.

The fourth one is territorial disputes. The issue of territorial disputes can be regarded as a major obstacle for the development of China-ASEAN relations. China has territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. Unfortunately, territorial disputes are not only a historical problem, but also related to nationalism and government legitimacy, which results in the impossibility of making concessions on the territorial issue.

The fifth one is the diversity of ASEAN countries. According to statistics, there are more than 400 ethnicities and tribes in ASEAN countries. The ASEAN region is regarded as the most diverse area of politics, economy and culture in the world today.

At present, many ASEAN countries are in the process of economic transition and political restructuring and are faced with imbalances in economic development and non-traditional security challenges such as terrorism, avian flu and transnational crimes. At the same time, territorial disputes also exist between some ASEAN countries.

With the accelerated pace of ASEAN integration, the differences among ASEAN countries will become increasingly prominent and make cooperation among ASEAN countries more complicated, which will lead to more difficulties in the formulation of a coherent ASEAN foreign policy.

The author is a research fellow of the China Center for Contemporary World Studies.


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