China's good start in wooing Southeast Asia

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 October, 2013, 9:04am

Beijing's pledge to deepen its relationship with Southeast Asia has been followed by prompt and decisive action. Within days of President Xi Jinping telling the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum in Bali that China and the region needed one another to prosper, Premier li Keqiang this week signed a series of deals with one-time enemy Vietnam aimed at building a strategic partnership. Among the agreements was one to jointly develop resources in the contested South China Sea. The moves go a way to proving to Asians apprehensive about growing Chinese might that their northern neighbour is serious about its promise of a peaceful rise.

Li's visits to Vietnam, Thailand and the East Asia Summit in Brunei and Xi's to the Apec meeting, Indonesia and Malaysia were part of a charm offensive China has embarked on to win over Southeast Asians. The US and Japan are also vying for influence in the region and their efforts have been strengthened by wariness over China's intensions. In the 10th year of a strategic partnership with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian nations, Li announced it was time to upgrade relations by boosting economic links and settling disputes. He proposed a treaty of friendship.

That may seem unlikely for countries like Vietnam, which has had strained relations with Beijing since a border war in 1979. In March, a Chinese patrol vessel fired on a Vietnamese fishing boat and in May, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung warned that miscalculations over the South China Sea could harm trade and have global consequences. But Xi's administration has recently adopted a softer tone and the deals struck in talks between Li and his counterpart in Hanoi reflected its effectiveness. Beyond the resource-sharing pact, billions of dollars in trade and investment deals were signed.

Economic growth is the driver for China's strategy, but making an extra effort to resolve sources of potential conflict is also necessary. China has got off to a good start and the aproach it has adopted must be nurtured and strengthened.