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Positive Vibes
More cooperation between China and ASEAN countries promoted at joint foreign ministers' meeting
By Wen Qing  ·  2019-08-12  ·   Source: NO. 33 AUGUST 15, 2019

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi (sixth left) takes part in the 20th ASEAN Plus Three Foreign Ministers' Meeting, consisting of ASEAN, China, Japan and the Republic of Korea, in Bangkok, Thailand, on August 2 (XINHUA)

One in every three bananas grown by Filipino farmers was shipped to China in 2018, the year China surpassed Japan to become the biggest importer of bananas from the Philippines, with an amount totaling 1.2 million tons, accounting for 37 percent of the country's overall export volume.

This is just one example of the growing trade and economic ties between China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries. In recent years, China has increased imports of goods from ASEAN, such as civet coffee, mangosteen and palm oil. China has been the largest trading partner of ASEAN for 10 consecutive years, while ASEAN replaced the U.S. as China's second largest trading partner in the first half of 2019.

Moving forward, more cooperation and progress are expected between China and ASEAN as the parties agreed to forge closer ties at the China-ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, on July 31.

During the meeting, China and ASEAN members reached an agreement on aligning the Belt and Road Initiative with the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025 (MPAC). They concurred to join forces to safeguard multilateralism against the background of rising trade protectionism and agreed to continue efforts to set up regional rules, especially to conclude of the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea.

Docking strategies

Many ASEAN member states are important partners of the Belt and Road Initiative. In fact, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the construction of the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road during a speech in the Indonesian parliament in October 2013. Since enhancing infrastructure connectivity has been the goal of both the Belt and Road Initiative and the MPAC, there is huge potential for the docking of the two development strategies.

"The alignment between the Belt and Road Initiative proposed by China and the MPAC are mutually beneficial to both sides," Song Qingrun, an associate researcher on ASEAN studies with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, told Beijing Review.

Among ASEAN countries, there is growing recognition of a national and regional infrastructure deficit, with many states unable to independently fill the infrastructure gap either financially or sometimes even technically. Thus, China's success in infrastructure building offers a contemporary example of what can be achieved.

For instance, Thailand is promoting the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC), with the aim of developing its eastern seaboard into a leading ASEAN economic zone. It approved the EEC development project in 2016 and agreed to link it with the Belt and Road Initiative.

"Many projects are under construction or will be implemented soon to enhance interconnectivity, which will facilitate the human, goods and investment exchange flow between China and ASEAN," Song continued.

The China-Laos Economic Corridor, spanning southwest China's Yunnan Province and Laos's southern region, has progressed smoothly. The construction of the China-Laos railway project, which is the flagship project of the economic corridor spreading over 414 km, is mostly completed. The Saysettha Development Zone, which is also part of the economic corridor, has attracted 57 companies and is estimated to create 10,000 jobs for local communities by the end of the year.

"With the building of railway and road networks, connectivity within Laos and with regional countries will be improved, which will contribute to turning Laos from a landlocked country into a land-connected one," Jiang Zaidong, Chinese Ambassador to Laos, said.

Safeguarding multilateralism

Stressing that the global economy is at an important crossroads, with an increasing number of uncertainties and challenges, the 52nd ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting reiterated member countries' resolve to safeguard free trade and multilateralism.

Thailand warned ASEAN members to be "more agile" as nationalism rises worldwide. "We must recognize that looking inward and being myopic is not an option and never will be," Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said at the opening of the meeting on July 29.

"Amid great turmoil, we must be more outward and forward looking than ever before." He warned that the road ahead "could be treacherous," but that greater cooperation among ASEAN members and outside partners could help sustain long-term growth.

In addition, ASEAN foreign ministers reiterated their commitment to concluding the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations this year. In the joint communiqué issued after the meeting, members "encouraged the RCEP ministers and officials to redouble their efforts to reach this target, guided by the RCEP Work Plan 2019, which was endorsed by the ministers at the intersessional meeting in Siem Reap (Cambodia) in March 2019."

As a free trade agreement (FTA) proposed by ASEAN with its six FTA partners—China, Japan, India, the Republic of Korea (ROK), Australia and New Zealand—negotiations for the RCEP began in 2012, but have yet to be concluded due to various reasons. "Countries differ from each other in economic development and the scale of their economy, therefore they have very different pursuits, which are difficult to accommodate," Song explained.

For example, India's conservative position on protecting its internal markets has greatly affected the whole RCEP process. As a result, countries participating in RCEP negotiations agreed to make greater tax cuts on trade in goods, hoping India would slash taxes on 92 percent of imported goods. But India only agreed to slash taxes on 85 percent of imported goods from China, Australia, New Zealand and some other countries which it hasn't signed separate FTAs with, according to Zhu Ying, a professor on world economy from Shanghai Normal University.

China has always supported an early conclusion to RCEP negotiations, which will lead to one of the world's largest trading blocs, representing 45 percent of the global population, 40 percent of the world's trade and about one third of the global GDP. Chinese leaders reiterated that China will not pursue trade surpluses and will aim to increase imports from related countries.

Since 2017, RCEP negotiations have sped up. And 95 percent of the work has been completed, which provided the possibility for conclusion by the end of 2019. "Although foreign ministers hope to conclude the negotiations by the end of the year, whether it can be achieved still hinges on the efforts of related countries. And the recent trade quarrel between Japan and the ROK has added uncertainty to its prospects," Song said.

South China Sea

"We… were encouraged by the progress of the substantive negotiations toward an early conclusion of an effective and substantive South China Sea COC within a mutually agreed upon timeline," the joint communiqué continued. "We welcome efforts to complete the first reading of the Single Draft COC Negotiating Text this year."

The South China Sea has long been an important topic at ASEAN foreign ministers' meetings, but this year, it was a spotlight of cooperation rather than of hot debate. China and ASEAN countries finished the first reading of the Single Draft Negotiating Text of the COC ahead of schedule, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said after attending the China-ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting.

In May 2017, China and ASEAN agreed on a framework for the COC. In August 2018, they arrived at the Single Draft Negotiating Text. "COC progress went very smoothly and was beyond our expectations in some regards. The conclusion of the first reading also reflected countries' intentions to cooperate and place importance on this issue," Song said.

However, China and ASEAN should be wary of outsiders' meddling and interference in this issue. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo once again made irresponsible remarks on China's efforts in maintaining peace in the South China Sea during a meeting with ASEAN foreign ministers.

In response, Wang said what "a certain non-regional great power" has done is neither goodwill behavior nor responsible action that will address regional countries' concerns for peace and development.

"Going forward, perhaps there will be some twists in details in future negotiations, but as long as related parties move toward resolving the issue, the final result will meet all expectations," Song concluded.

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo

Comments to wenqing@bjreview.com

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