Stronger ties between China and Asean nations a matter of trust
China's reaching out a hand of friendship to Southeast Asian nations this month is what the region needs. Ties have been strengthened by President Xi Jinping attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum in Bali and visiting Indonesia and Malaysia, and by Premier Li Keqiang's trip to the East Asia Summit in Brunei. Some countries distrust Beijing's intentions, so face-to-face assurances will help ease tensions. Prioritising these relationships and raising their importance is good; it is the best way to attain economic and political stability.
Li's call on Wednesday for the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian nations to put aside territorial disputes over the South China Sea set the right tone. Instead, he suggested, they should focus on economic co-operation and think about a friendship treaty. The pact topped seven proposals to boost relations over the next decade and upgrade the China-Asean free trade area. A settlement should not be rushed at and, as the premier advised, consideration given to joint development.
China is competing for the hearts and minds of Southeast Asians with the US and Japan, both of which are also pushing for trade agreements as part of wider strategies to win allies. For the US, it is two-pronged, centred on President Barack Obama's pivot to Asia and a free trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which excludes China. Economically, China has the upper hand, with bilateral trade with Asean increasing by 22 per cent a year since 2002; it has been Asean's biggest trading partner since 2009. The comprehensive strategic partnerships and billions of dollars in trade deals signed by Xi with Indonesia and Malaysia articulated the commitment to a "new type of relationship between major countries" his government made when it took office seven months ago.
But strong ties also require trust, and China has much work to do. It must make good on its much-repeated pledge of a peaceful rise; and it must be more transparent about the growth of its military. Circumstances have meant that a number of Asean countries are seeking closer economic ties with Beijing while forging security alliances with Washington. As contradictory as it seems, this is helping maintain stability.
Asean's gatherings are the best platforms to foster and increase regional co-operation. Economic and financial agreements and deals will move China and the region closer while ways are found to settle disputes.