Last Monday, ASEAN member states met formally with China’s top leader Xi Jinping for the first time to commemorate 30 years of dialogue partnership.
China has always been in ASEAN’s spotlight. This time, it shines a little brighter as the two sides met on 22 November as Comprehensive Strategic Partners, a new title accorded to China only less than a month ago.
It is also the first time ASEAN Leaders and Chinese President Xi Jinping have formally met at a virtual Special Summit to commemorate the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-China dialogue relations. Unlike the previous ASEAN Summits which are typically attended by the Chinese premier, this time around, ASEAN Leaders, except for Myanmar, have met with Xi Jinping, the top leader in China.
This is ASEAN’s third high-level meeting with China for the year — following a Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in June, held face-to-face in Chongqing China amid the pandemic, and the 24th ASEAN-China Summit held virtually last month.
The elevated political signature of Monday’s summit comes as no surprise. China would want to make its mark on a regional bloc that is at the centre of the regional architecture at this propitious 30th anniversary milestone. The long list of activities lined up – from congratulatory messages and photo albums to exhibitions and forums – to commemorate the year, has culminated in yet another Summit with a Joint Statement that clearly elevates the ASEAN-China relationship to that of “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” (CSP). The new title would evidently give China a higher status over the other dialogue partners, including the longstanding ones like the U.S. which would celebrate its 45th anniversary of relations with ASEAN next year.
But what, really, will China be bringing to the table? The economic imperative of a CSP with ASEAN is self-evident. China has retained its position as ASEAN’s largest trading partner since 2009. In 2020, ASEAN and China became each other’s largest trading partner for the first time with total merchandise trade reaching US$516.9 billion.
It is also an integral member of every framework and mechanism in ASEAN from the East Asia Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which will enter into force on 1 January 2022 for the ten countries who have ratified, including China.
President Xi has also announced in his speech a further US$1.5 billion in development assistance to ASEAN in the next three years to promote economic recovery from the pandemic. A promise to buy US$150 billion worth of agriculture products from ASEAN over the next five years was also made.
On the security front, the scope of cooperation between ASEAN and China is immense, not forgetting that China is also the first dialogue partner to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia in 2003.
What can truly bring some real meaning to the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership would be the conclusion of an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC), a document that is eight years into its negotiation.
However, the sticking point continues to be the South China Sea, an issue that remains on the global radar. What can truly bring some real meaning to the CSP would be the conclusion of an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC), a document that is eight years into its negotiation.
ASEAN and the world would like to see a document that is in accordance with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS, which can address the myriad of security challenges in one of the world’s most contested waters. This includes occasional standoffs with ASEAN members – the most recent episode occurred just last week between China and the Philippines. Any progress made on the COC will also be a success marker in Cambodia’s chairmanship especially as 2022 commemorates the 20th anniversary of the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).
As a Comprehensive Strategic Partner, ASEAN would also like to see some strategic alignment between ASEAN and China. It will not tolerate any resistance to the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) – a document that reinforces ASEAN’s central role in the region and is almost as sacrosanct as the ASEAN Charter. China can take advantage of the ASEAN-China Year of Sustainable Development which has been designated for 2021-2022 to accelerate the implementation of the UN 2030 Agenda, a priority area identified in the Outlook. It can also support the implementation of the AOIP through the EAS.
Another development that was welcomed by ASEAN was China’s alignment with the bloc’s decision regarding Myanmar. Myanmar did not send a representative to the Summit, following ASEAN’s firm stance to maintain its position of inviting a non-political representative. This was despite the fact that Myanmar is the coordinator for ASEAN-China relations and had worked hard in coordinating the Special Summit and other activities over the last three months.
But besides China, ASEAN has also granted the same status of Comprehensive Strategic Partner to Australia last month. This will help attenuate any signal of ASEAN taking sides or tilting towards China. ASEAN is clear on two points. First, the new partnership title is a recognition of the depth and breadth of the dialogue relations, and not an upgrade. Second, the new partnership should be meaningful, substantive and mutually beneficial.
However, what ASEAN may not be crystal clear about is what should constitute meaningful or substantive. After all, other dialogue partners also have a full spectrum of cooperation with ASEAN and may perhaps exceed those of China and Australia. ASEAN should also not forget that Canada — another longstanding dialogue partner which would celebrate its 45th anniversary with ASEAN next year – has not even been granted the status of a strategic partnership, let alone a comprehensive one. ASEAN can expect a long line of requests from other dialogue partners coming its way. Should ASEAN calibrate its guiding principles for future enhancement of partnerships? Otherwise, is ASEAN prepared for another round of upgrade in its nomenclature with dialogue partners once they have an equal status? Perhaps an ‘Enhanced Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ will come China’s way in the future.
Joanne Lin is Co-coordinator at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.