Fruitful ties with SE Asia yield rich harvest

By Ei Sun Oh Source:Global Times Published: 2013-10-7 19:53:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

"Sing sing so…" is a melodic folk song often sung to appreciative audiences throughout China. It is almost as popular in China as in its homeland of Indonesia, signifying China's long-standing links with the islands, and Southeast Asia in general.

Southeast Asia continues to take central place in China's latest foreign policy moves. Recently Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Indonesia and Malaysia, two of the most substantial regional players.

Indonesia has experienced undulating ties with China in the past. After achieving independence from Dutch colonial rule, Indonesia's founding president Sukarno forged an intimate camaraderie with a similarly young and new China. This was vividly exhibited at the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference held in the Indonesia city of Bandung, when a then diplomatically isolated China saw then Chinese premier Zhou Enlai lay out the famous foreign policy principles for peaceful coexistence.

But Sino-Indonesian rapport hit a low after the 1965 coup in Indonesia, with the two countries resuming their diplomatic relationship only in the 1990s.

As the largest and most populous country in Southeast Asia, Indonesia is a major trading partner for China.  It is thus high time that these two major countries in the Asia-Pacific region should deepen their relationship.

The centerpiece of Xi's Indonesian visit was his address before the Indonesian parliament, a first for a Chinese president. The themes of his speech extended beyond Indonesia to encompass the whole of Southeast Asia. Xi called for trust and integrity in dealings among nations, not least between China and its Southeast Asian partners.

A concrete yet practical trust-building mechanism that goes beyond economic aspects is much needed between Southeast Asian nations and China. China should work hard to clarify its intentions in the region, while ASEAN countries should also be forthright about their expectations of China's duties and responsibilities in this region. Only then could even more cordial and integral ties be forged between the two sides.

In addition to the existing China-ASEAN free trade agreement, the revival of the maritime Silk Road as proposed by Xi can be a good starting point for such a trust-building mechanism, and it also complements the continental Silk Road Xi mooted in central Asia a few weeks ago.

Southeast Asian nations welcome China taking the lead in making this maritime Silk Road a potential development belt as well, thus further binding the prosperity of the various nations along the way, creating win-win situations for all.

But for such a maritime Silk Road to help accelerate development along its way, it has first and foremost to be free from conflicts.

In this regard, Xi's call for restraint and the settlement of South China Sea disputes through peaceful negotiations is particularly timely.

Eventually, Southeast Asian nations, as much as China, would like to see a comprehensive solution be reached once and for all among all the parties to the disputes. Meanwhile, it should not deter both sides from pursuing many other aspects of their relationships centered rightly on economic cooperation.

As economic collaboration will no doubt continue to grow in leaps and bounds between China and Indonesia as well as Malaysia, it is high time that other aspects of these close relations, such as education, culture and technology, be highlighted and brought into fruition.

Some may view these "softer" aspects of the relations as wishy-washy, but if carefully and assiduously handled, they could engender huge economic returns for all parties.

Take education. In an internationalized education market such as Malaysia that also boasts a robust Chinese language education system, prestigious Chinese universities should consider setting up more branch campuses there, taking in students from not only China and Malaysia, but also other Southeast Asian nations and beyond. 

China could also set up creative content production bases in Southeast Asia, drawing inspirations from the equally multicultural outlook in the region as well as the long history of interactions with China.

As China puts forth its confident strides in international diplomacy, it wisely focuses on reinforcing strong and productive ties with some of its major neighbors, such as Indonesia and Malaysia. If carefully nurtured, these could serve as concrete models for other neighbors in stepping up their relations with China.

The author is a senior fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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