Summit diplomacy to advance community building in East Asia

By Yi Fan Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/22 19:43:39

This year's Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia leaders' summits, which brought together leading regional and international players, were held at a pivotal moment. The summits came soon after China's epoch-making 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, and coincided with ASEAN's 50th anniversary and the 20 years of ASEAN plus China, Japan and South Korea cooperation. It was also a high point during a period of intense diplomacy in the region, with visits to Southeast Asia by leaders of China and the US.

China brought reassuring messages to ASEAN and the wider region. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang made it clear that China's efforts to build a community of shared future for mankind, which was reiterated at the 19th Party Congress as one of the guiding principles for the country's foreign policy in the new era, should start with Southeast Asia. He proposed the drafting of a 2030 vision for the China-ASEAN strategic partnership for comprehensive development of relations in the coming years and reaffirmed China's long-standing commitment to peaceful development, good-neighborliness and win-win cooperation.

The premier's economic message was an ambitious one. He called for renewed efforts in the building of an East Asia Economic Community (EAEC). Pledging continued commitment to the centrality of ASEAN, he laid out a six-pronged approach to foster the EAEC through trade and investment liberalization and facilitation, closer partnership in industrial capacity, and cooperation in a range of fields from infrastructure, finance, to sustainable development and cultural exchanges.

Now would be a good time to reinvigorate the EAEC. Better political relations and dynamic economic partnerships in the region have given fresh impetus to regional economic integration. The China-Philippines rapprochement and the enhancement of relations between Beijing and Hanoi have solidified a positive momentum on the South China Sea issue. The improvement of relations between China, Japan and South Korea will unleash enormous potential for better economic ties and generate greater interest in and incentive for the EAEC.

On the economic front, China-ASEAN cooperation is moving ahead with full steam. The two have remained each other's biggest trading partners for years. The upgrading of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area was completed, and cooperation on the Belt and Road initiative has been vigorously pursued, with construction starting on major projects like the China-Laos railway, East Coast Railway Project in Malaysia and Jakarta-Bandung railway in Indonesia. Further synergy between the Belt and Road initiative with the development strategies of ASEAN countries promises broad prospects and harbors enormous potential.

In the meantime, regional cooperation initiatives, such as negotiations for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the China-Japan-South Korea free trade area, are making greater headway. The newly-set up ASEAN economic community and the Lancang-Mekong cooperation framework are showing greater progress in promoting sub-regional integration. All these have laid the building blocks for a future single market and the creation of a more integrated industrial chain in the region. In a broader context, uncertainties of the global economy and rising protectionist sentiments have made the setting up of EAEC even more timely and necessary.

The third message Premier Li brought to Southeast Asia was his proposal to start the next-step consultation on the text of a code of conduct in the South China Sea, which was unanimously agreed to by leaders of ASEAN member states. Given the tortuous course the region went through in addressing the South China Sea issue, such progress signifies a return to the right track for settling disputes through negotiations and safeguarding peace and stability through cooperation between China and ASEAN members.

These outcomes are solid steps forward in building a China-ASEAN community of shared future featuring common ideals, common prosperity and common responsibility.

However, China-ASEAN relations are not without challenges. Beneath the now much calmer waters, there remain undercurrents of misperception, distrust and external interference, which will continue to infuse an element of uncertainty into the consultation process of a code of conduct.

Needless to say, ASEAN countries have been keenly observing both the emerging trends in China-US relations and the contours of the new US administration's Asia-Pacific policy following President Donald Trump's extended tour of the region to find clues about how the professed Indo-Pacific strategy will be implemented and impact the geopolitical landscape of the region.

Some commentators described Trump's trip as a "make China great again" visit. Yet such sentiments are overblown. China does not intend to seek dominance in the Asia-Pacific. All it is interested in is to protect its sovereignty, territorial integrity and rights and interests, to enhance ties with neighbors, and develop positive interactions with the US and other major countries in the region. Neither the US nor ASEAN should see their interactions with China through the zero-sum prism.

As Premier Li underscored, building a peaceful, prosperous community through win-win cooperation is the best approach to advance everyone's interest.

The author is an observer of international relations.


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