China-ASEAN ties to grow stronger despite US ‘wedge’
Published: Jul 14, 2021 09:58 PM
Illustration: Tang Tengfei/GT

Illustration: Tang Tengfei/GT

The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, at his first meeting with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), did not forget to point the finger at China and tried to drive a wedge between China and ASEAN - the two large economies which have become each other's largest trading partner.

At the virtual meeting on Wednesday, Blinken "reaffirmed the US' commitment to ASEAN centrality and underscored ASEAN's essential role in the Indo-Pacific's regional architecture," said State Department spokesman Ned Price in a statement.

It is not breaking news for Washington to attempt to lure other Asian countries into its clique in a bid to confront China and maintain its hegemonic position in the region. What's also crystal clear is that the so-call "ASEAN centrality" or "ASEAN's essential role" is only US' hypocritical remarks without genuine efforts.

With the regional integration in Asia, especially in East and Southeast Asia, has become an irreversible trend, collaboration between China and ASEAN has long trended towards deeper and broader collaboration, offering genuine value to the region in comparison to the US' engagement with Southeast Asia.

For starters, China and ASEAN became each other's largest trading partner. In 2020, ASEAN surpassed the EU and became China's top trading partner for the first time, showing strong resilience amid the sudden onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

In 2019 when ASEAN was the second largest trading partner of China, bilateral trade stood at 4.43 trillion yuan ($684.9 billion), while trade between ASEAN and the US totaled at $294.6 billion. Behind the distinct trading gap was the increasingly tight industrial chain of China and ASEAN, close geographical location, as well as profound cultural connections.

ASEAN markets have also become a key overseas region attracting Chinese companies' investment. During recent years, investment from China has surged rapidly in the region. Chinese investment has concentrated more in infrastructure areas which is more crucial for the long-term development of local markets. 

Biden administration is reportedly planning to propose a so-call digital trade deal covering Indo-Pacific economies, but how many countries in the region have developed a sufficient size of digital economy to promote such exchanges with the US? 

What they need is to improve digital infrastructure in the first place, which is one of the sectors that ASEAN and China have been working on and achieving great progresses. From cities setting up cooperative relation and leading the collaboration between the two large economies, to firms following up the trend, the digital connection has formed a foundation to further pursue digital economic exchanges. 

In addition to the advantages in infrastructure area, Chinese investment in ASEAN has also been catching up fast with the US across high-tech industries. From 5G networks, artificial intelligence (AI) to satellite navigation, the two sides have becoming ever more closely linked.

Behind the promising China-ASEAN ties, there are also emerging economic cooperation zones, the mega free trade agreement RCEP, and a much more stable trading relation between China and ASEAN based on respect over each other's comparable advantages, comparing to the US' constant usage of its so-called Section 301 domestic trade act to crack down on its trading partners.

Taking a zero-sum mentality to these issues, the US will not cease its efforts to sow discord between China and Southeast Asia. Though the US remains a vital market for other economies, its credit line has been declining, and not just in economic and trade terms, but also in other key fields such as vaccine cooperation. ASEAN members know clearly which paths in lines with their essential interest and won't allow the US to use the region as a place to play zero-sum games.

The article was compiled based on an interview with Zhou Shixin, a director in Institute for Foreign Policy Studies, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS).
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