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Support for East Asia's Prosperity
China demonstrates sincerity in seeking cooperation at a series of summits in Vientiane
By Bai Shi | NO. 38 SEPTEMBER 22, 2016

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (ninth right) attends the 11th East Asia Summit in Vientiane, Laos, on September 8 (XINHUA)

After attending the G20 Hangzhou Summit in China, state leaders of East Asia and some other countries moved to Vientiane, the Laotian capital, for a series of annual summits convened by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose rotating presidency is held by Laos this year.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attended three leaders' meetings with ASEAN at the center on September 7-9. The three meetings were the 19th ASEAN-China Summit, the 19th ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan and South Korea) Summit, and the 11th East Asia Summit which U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev also attended.

At the annual ASEAN Summit, held in Vientiane on September 6, leaders of all 10 members engaged in a discussion with the theme Turning Vision into Reality for a Dynamic ASEAN Community.

The newly established ASEAN Community is designed to develop into a politically cohesive, economically integrated and people-centered regional bloc in Southeast Asia, according to the development blueprint, known as the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 inked by ASEAN members last November. 

Anniversary year

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the establishment of ASEAN-China dialogue relations. Therefore, the 19th ASEAN-China Summit had special meaning for both sides. At the beginning of the meeting, Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith hosted a ceremony to commemorate the 25th anniversary of ASEAN-China dialogue relations in Vientiane on September 7.

During the ceremony, Premier Li and ASEAN leaders watched a short film chronicling China's growing relations with ASEAN over the last 25 years and looking at their possible cooperation in the future. Singapore is the coordinator of China-ASEAN relations. Its Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong joined Li and Sisoulith to cut a commemorative cake.

In his remarks at the ceremony, Premier Li said, "The past 25 years have seen growing mutual trust and pragmatic achievements made between China and ASEAN."

The Chinese premier pledged to continue giving priority to developing relations with ASEAN. China will support the building of the ASEAN Community, ASEAN's central role in regional cooperation, and its growing role in international and regional affairs, Li said.

China and ASEAN issued a series of joint statements at the summit, in which the two sides vowed to further enhance cooperation and maintain regional peace and security.

Wei Min, researcher of Southeast Asia at the China Institute of International Studies, told Beijing-based World Affairs magazine that China has been enhancing its cooperation with ASEAN.

The economic ties between China and ASEAN have become closer year by year. China has continued being ASEAN's largest trading partner since 2010, when the two sides reached a free trade agreement (FTA). In 2015, the values of bilateral trade and investment between China and ASEAN reached $472 billion and $150 billion respectively, according to Wei.

Currently, China and ASEAN are implementing their third action plan for building strategic partnership, while their agreement on upgrading the China-ASEAN FTA came into force this July.

China's efforts to build FTAs with neighboring countries and regional blocs in recent years have yielded fruit. For instance, China has reached bilateral FTAs with South Korea and Australia. Talks on the China-Japan-South Korea FTA and the China-U.S. Bilateral Investment Treaty are also ongoing, though many difficulties remain to be overcome.

Besides, China has launched a number of multilateral development programs, such as the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road (The Belt and Road Initiative) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), with a great number of ASEAN states joining these initiatives.

Deepening cooperation with China has been frequently mentioned in discussions concerning regional integration in the Asia-Pacific region. Many Southeast Asian countries look forward to exploring business opportunities with China, Wei said.

At the 19th ASEAN-China Summit, the two sides adopted four outcome documents, including the Joint Statement of the 19th China-ASEAN Summit to Commemorate the 25th Anniversary of China-ASEAN Dialogue Relations, the Joint Statement Between China and ASEAN on Production Capacity Cooperation, the Guidelines on the China-ASEAN Senior Foreign Officials' Hotline Platform for Emergencies, and the Joint Statement on the Application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea in the South China Sea Between China and ASEAN.

Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith (left) holds a welcoming ceremony for Chinese Premier Li Keqiang before their talks in Vientiane, Laos, on September 8 (XINHUA) 

More cooperation

Strengthening regional cooperation remains the focus of the leaders' meetings held in Vientiane, although Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tried to exert pressure on China by mentioning the recent so-called South China Sea arbitration in their speeches during the East Asia Summit.

The arbitration was unilaterally initiated by the then Philippine President Benigno Aquino III in 2013.

However, the leaders of all ASEAN members, including newly elected Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, did not talk about the arbitration in their remarks at the summit. This shows that Obama and Abe's plan to create tension between China and ASEAN at the forum had failed.

In response to the comment on the South China Sea issue, Premier Li again expressed China's stance on the issue in his speech at the 11th East Asia Summit. He called for concerted efforts by all relevant parties to properly handle disputes.

Through the ASEAN-China Summit held on September 7, leaders of China and ASEAN reached consensus on managing and controlling disputes in the South China Sea through dialogue and cooperation.

China and ASEAN adopted a set of guidelines for their senior diplomats' hotline for addressing emergencies at sea. The two sides also jointly declared that they agree on the application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, an international agreement reached in 2014 to reduce the chances of maritime incidents in the South China Sea.

The joint statements on the maritime disputes between China and ASEAN members show that the various parties are willing to find a proper way to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea and to seek a peaceful settlement to the issue. Under such circumstances, any attempt to create tension on the issue during the summits was out of place.

Apart from the series of summits, Premier Li's schedule included meetings with Singaporean Prime Minister, Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Premier Li also had an unofficial talks with President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte.

The Chinese premier had managed to create a friendly atmosphere and dispel doubts by showing sincerity through these bilateral meetings.

Over the past 25 years, China has worked closely with ASEAN to maintain regional peace and stability, Oh Ei-sun, former Political Secretary to Malaysian prime minister, and visiting senior fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) under Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said in an interview with Xinhua News Agency.

Thanks to the peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, all countries in the region are able to focus on economic development and enjoy the benefits of China's growth, Oh Ei-sun said.

Kumiko Haba, a professor of international relations at Aoyama Gakuin University in Japan, said that the Chinese premier's remarks during the East Asia summits reflected China's goodwill in sharing economic growth opportunities with all parties, expanding common interests and promoting regional prosperity.

On various occasions during the summits, Premier Li called on all parties to avoid confrontation on regional security issues and seek the peaceful settlement of disputes. Li particularly emphasized that the cooperation between members of the ASEAN Plus Three group is extremely important to the region.

ASEAN appeared united and did not derail from its focus on bilateral and multilateral cooperation when the South China Sea issue was mentioned again during the summits by some countries that are not directly involved in the disputes.

After a short period of frictions caused by the South China Sea arbitration in the summer, the South China Sea situation has cooled down thanks to the joint efforts of China and ASEAN.

China adheres to a dual-track approach for seeking peaceful settlement of the issue, which is in line with the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) that was agreed by China and ASEAN in 2002.

Dialogue and consultation are the only ways to narrow divisions between all parties concerned, and to finally solve the issue.

Closer neighbors

Premier Li paid an official visit to Laos after attending the East Asia Summit.

In his meeting with Laotian President Bounnhang Vorachit in Vientiane on September 8, Premier Li expressed that China remains ready to push ahead with major projects in Laos including the China-Laos railway, economic zones and hydroelectric projects.

During Premier Li's visit, the two governments signed 20 documents to boost cooperation in the areas of industry, infrastructure construction, energy, finance, education and people-to-people exchanges.

The China-Laos railway is an actual component of China's initiative to build an economic belt along the ancient Silk Road routes. The Laotian congress ratified the railway project in 2012. However, construction of the railway did not start on schedule due to uncertainties in financing, environmental protection concerns and other matters. During Premier Li's visit, the two sides confirmed the start of construction by the end of this year.

Khaosan Pathet Lao (KPL), the official news agency of Laos, commented during Li's visit that China's rapid economic development has benefited its neighboring countries. The Belt and Road Initiative will enable Laos and other Asian neighbors to share more growth opportunities than in the past.

The railway cooperation project will help improve the landlocked country's inconvenient transportation and position as an important part of the chain in an integrated economic belt, KPL commented.

Consensus on economic cooperation reached by Chinese and Laotian leaders will continue to help Laos lift itself from poverty, KPL reported.

Enterprises and people of the two countries have increasingly benefited from their closer economic ties.

Shao Xinfang, a public relations officer of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), told Beijing Review that ICBC has witnessed rapid growth of its financial business in Laos.

ICBC now manages the biggest amount of assets of all commercial banks in Laos by August this year, Shao said. 

ICBC established an office in Vientiane in November, 2011. The rapid growth of ICBC in Laos should be attributed to the closer economic ties between the two countries, said Shao.

In recent years, ICBC has supported many important projects in Laos by providing loans. The Ninth Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit took place in Vientiane in November, 2012. In the lead up to the event, ICBC financed the building of facilities such as hotels to enable the city to host the summit, Shao said.

Now, ICBC has been authorized to operate RMB clearing in Laos, further enhancing its position as a financing bridge to promote China-Laos cooperation under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, Shao said.

China-ASEAN Ties

- 2016: The 25th anniversary of the dialogue relationship between China and ASEAN. By the end of this year, the two sides are expected to conclude negotiations toward the upgrade of the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (ACFTA).

- 2014: ASEAN and China decide to upgrade the ACFTA to ensure that it would remain dynamic and commercially relevant.

- 2013: During a visit to Indonesia, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposes to work with ASEAN countries to jointly build the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road and an even closer China-ASEAN community of common destiny, which has charted the course for the long-term development of the China-ASEAN relations.

- 2010: The China-ASEAN FTA becomes the world's third largest free trade area with a combined population of 1.9 billion and a combined GDP close to $6 trillion.

- 2009: China and ASEAN members sign the ASEAN-China Investment Agreement. The signing of the investment agreement means the completion of the negotiation process of ACFTA.

- 2007: China and ASEAN countries sign the Agreement on Trade in Services of China-ASEAN Free Trade Area in the Philippines in January, laying the foundation for the China-ASEAN free trade area to be completed as scheduled.

- 2005: On July 1, China and ASEAN countries start their tariff-reducing process when the Agreement on Trade in Goods becomes effective.

- 2004: The two sides sign the Agreement on Trade in Goods of the Framework Agreement on China-ASEAN Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and the Agreement on Dispute Settlement Mechanism, which mark the beginning of the construction of a free trade area encompassing China and the ASEAN members.

- 2003: Then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and ASEAN leaders sign the Joint Declaration on the Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity. China formally submits an application to ASEAN to join the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia.

- 2002: Leaders of the two sides sign the Framework Agreement on China-ASEAN Comprehensive Economic Cooperation, deciding to establish the China-ASEAN free trade area by 2010.

- 1997: Then Chinese President Jiang Zemin attends the first China-ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. After the summit, the two sides issued the Joint Statement of the Meeting of the Heads of the State/Government of the Member States of ASEAN and of the People's Republic of China, establishing guidelines for their relationship and the policy of a good-neighborly partnership of mutual trust oriented to the 21st century.

- 1996: The ASEAN Standing Committee elevates the status of China from consultative partnership to full dialogue partnership.

Copyedited by Chris Surtees  

Comments to baishi@bjreview.com  

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