When heads of state and government were taking part in the leaders roundtable on the concluding day of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing on May 15, drafting a blueprint for a globalized world that is "open, inclusive and beneficial to all," a less-known meeting but with a strong connection to the same theme was being held in a different part of the capital.
"In Beijing, we have the meeting of great minds. This meeting is the meeting of friends," AKP Mochtan, Deputy Secretary General of ASEAN for Community and Corporate Affairs, said while delivering the keynote address at the Seminar on ASEAN Community Building and China-ASEAN Relations held in the Fragrant Hills area of Beijing, a picturesque tourist destination famed for the beauty of its autumnal trees. Themed "Communication, Cooperation and Common Development," the seminar hosted by China's Mission to ASEAN, BEIJING REVIEW and Pangoal Institution, a think tank on Chinese public policy, added an extra dimension to the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative. It focused on the importance of ASEAN in the new world development vision and how the regional bloc could contribute to it.
"ASEAN is now the darling of the international and investor communities," Mochtan said, pointing out that the 10-member group is the sixth largest economy in the world with a combined GDP of $2.3 trillion. It is also one of the largest markets with a combined population of 630 million, the most populated region after China and India. "We are on track for our trade target of $1 trillion and investment of $150 billion by 2020," he added. "We are very lucky. We are not like the Middle East. We don't have the problem of refugees and civil war."
Such figures speak to ASEAN's transformation since its founding as a five-member fledgling grouping in 1967, when the region witnessed tension and conflict between its member countries.
Group photo of the attendants at the Communication, Cooperation and Common Development Seminar on ASEAN Community Building and China-ASEAN Relations in Beijing on May 15 (WANG XIANG)
Today, the ASEAN dream is aligned with the Chinese dream and the Belt and Road development initiative. "It is an opportune time for us to work together," Mochtan said.
With regard to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the proposed 12-country trade agreement excluding China, falling into "a coma" after the U.S. pulled out of it in January 2017, Mochtan said the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the proposed free trade agreement (FTA) between ASEAN and the six countries it has FTAs with, including China, was becoming more important. Once the agreement is finalized, it would create a huge market that could encompass more than half the size of the world population. Negotiations are expected to conclude this year, he added.
Like the Belt and Road Initiative, ASEAN was also created for peace and stability. It is now looking to further expand its economy. China remains a critical partner in the scheme, as it is ASEAN's largest trading partner with two-way trade reaching $360 billion. Also, with 20 million Chinese visitors to ASEAN cities on average every year and 5,000 flights a month connecting Chinese and ASEAN cities, China underpins the region's tourism.
"People tend to focus only on the South China Sea [territorial dispute]," Mochtan said. "But our ties are broader and deeper." Officials were meeting during the week to discuss the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea to avert further disputes. "We don't sweep problems under the carpet," he added.
Li Yafang, President of BEIJING REVIEW, emphasized the importance of ASEAN in the Belt and Road's scheme of things. She referred to President Xi Jinping's speech at the National University of Singapore in November 2015, when he said China's neighbors are the main partners in the Belt and Road Initiative and they will be the first to benefit from it.
Southeast Asia, once a hub on the ancient Maritime Silk Road, has become a major component of the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road as well. There is a major land link too, through the China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor.
"It starts from south China's Nanning City in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, passes through Kunming City in Yunnan Province and ends in Singapore," Li said. "This land bridge links China with the Indochina Peninsula, passing through Viet Nam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia. When this landmark project is implemented, it will serve as an example for cooperation between China and other countries and regions."
Teng Jianqun, Director for the Center of Arms Control and International Security Studies at China Institute of International Studies, highlighted the importance of security cooperation between China and ASEAN to build a safer region against the backdrop of growing extremism, terrorism and transnational crimes. "We have already shared our trade, now we should share security," he remarked.
Teng said the change in China's foreign policy has made security cooperation among China and other countries possible. In the beginning, when China's foreign policy was ideology-oriented, military issues were regarded as a sensitive area. However, when China began reforms and opened up in the late 1970s, foreign policy became trade-oriented. Finally in 2013, China adopted a security-oriented foreign policy with 11 aspects ranging from cultural to nuclear security. Consequently, China's security cooperation with ASEAN witnessed changes.
Teng said now there are bilateral and multilateral military drills in the South China Sea with ASEAN countries. The National Defense University of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, China's top university for military education, provides training to military officers from other countries, and there are frequent exchanges between senior military staff. China is also engaged in military technology exchange with other countries like Malaysia.
A former naval officer who was posted in the South China Sea for seven years, Teng also pointed out that ASEAN reciprocated the interest in security cooperation with China. Despite the previous Philippine Government departing from bilateral negotiations to resolve its territorial dispute with China, when it was decided to build an observation tower in the South China Sea, all ASEAN members agreed the work should be entrusted to China.
Besides trade, diplomacy and security ties, people-to-people exchange is also a key element in cementing relations, as Xi mentioned in his keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Forum. Liu Youfa, a senior advisor with Pangoal, said the 40 million overseas Chinese living in ASEAN countries were a major asset for fostering people-to-people exchange, a culture that had already been established by the ancient Maritime Silk Road.
No one left behind
Muhammad Firdaus Abdul Rahman, Vice President of the Brunei-China Friendship Association, brings a personal touch to efforts attempting to consolidate people-to-people links. "My mother is Chinese and I was adopted by a Chinese family," the Bruneian said. "I also have a Chinese name."
The Brunei-based association especially works for people with disabilities. Rahman's first initiative was to locate a cultural performance troupe of artistes with disabilities and bring them to perform in Brunei.
Rahman said he was skeptical about the Belt and Road Initiative at first. "I thought this [initiative was] only for politicians and business people," he said. "I thought why are you leaving out people, women and children? People-to-people connections are important because if you have good infrastructure, but people don't understand it, then it is a waste."
But after studying the initiative and Xi's call for strengthened exchanges, not just between parliaments, political parties and NGOs of different countries, but between women, youths and people with disabilities to achieve inclusive development, he felt his perception change. "President Xi talked about what we had discussed [in ASEAN and our association] about assisting entrepreneurs, women and the less fortunate in the [Belt and Road] project," he said. "The Belt and Road is a complete structure for everything. It matches the ASEAN Community Vision 2025."
All the developments will contribute to addressing the present skewed balance in world power and create a more just and equitable world, Liu added. "It creates opportunities to join hands and move forward in global governance," he said. In the past, both China and ASEAN were dominated and did not have the opportunity to take part in the building of global institutions and goals. But now, with the region's growing clout, "we can work on making common principles and a common roadmap," Liu said. "The Belt and Road is a new beginning."
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Copyedited by Bryan Michael Galvan
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