Thirty years after becoming a dialogue partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China has called for a summit on Nov. 22, 2021 to upgrade its status to being a comprehensive strategic partner.
China’s partnership level ties with countries and regional blocs are ranked from cooperative partnerships, to comprehensive cooperative partnerships, strategic partnerships and comprehensive strategic partnerships.
President Xi-jinping who has been elevated to the preeminence of his predecessors Mao Zedong and Deng Xiao Ping has just emerged from a virtual summit with US President Joseph Biden. This latest initiative indicates a proactive diplomatic stance that matches China’s stature in global economics.
Last year, ASEAN became China’s top trading partner. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong observed that this achievement has “become possible by both ASEAN and China actively contributing to and investing in an ASEAN-led regional architecture that is rules-based, open, inclusive and promotes free trade.”
Two significant trade partnerships underline such cooperation. A year ago, China and 15 other countries forged the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The agreement awaits ratification from four more countries after China and Japan have been joined by four ASEAN signatories, namely, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Singapore and Thailand. China has also signified its interest to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership; a free trade agreement participated in by four ASEAN members, namely, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. The other participants are Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand and Peru.
In the political sphere, the focal point of China-ASEAN engagement is the South China Sea that is the subject of a protracted dialogue on the crafting of a mutually acceptable Code of Conduct.
The Philippines, along with other littoral states such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam have staked claims in the resource-rich area, while affirming the importance of adhering to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Recall, too, that the Philippines secured a favorable ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration Tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands on the dispute involving China’s claim that it has “historic rights” over the area.
Regional stability is critically vital. The mutual interest of all concerned nations is promoted by ensuring that the South China “remains a sea of stability, peace and trade.”
Relatedly, Australia has affirmed its initiative to establish, too, its own comprehensive strategic partnership with China. ASEAN leaders have been assured by Australia that the AUKUS trilateral security pact it has entered into with the United States and Britain – under which Australia will get access to nuclear-powered submarines – poses no threat to the region.
The ASEAN-China summit comes at a time when many countries are already transitioning into more benign scenarios that soften the harsh impact of the coronavirus pandemic. It is hoped that with political issues being relegated to the background, economic recovery could be accelerated and enable the ASEAN peoples to resume their march toward greater prosperity.