Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent visits to Southeast Asia have set the right tone for fruitful ties with Asean

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 November, 2015, 1:39am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 November, 2015, 1:39am

South China Sea territorial disputes between China and four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have affected trust and unity within the 10-country grouping.

As pressing as finding a solution may be, though, an even greater priority is for all sides to work together for mutual benefit and regional growth.

President Xi Jinping's visits to Vietnam and Singapore last week showed through the agreements made that whatever the difficulties, it is better to cooperate. Doing so is good diplomatically, while also beneficial for the region.

Singapore and Vietnam have markedly different relations with China, reflected by the deals signed. Among the pacts was one to upgrade a bilateral free-trade agreement and another kick-starting a third government-to-government project to be centred on Chongqing , a city integral to China's "One Belt, One Road" initiative.

Development aid was the focus of accords agreed to during Xi's trip to Vietnam, which along with the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, contest islands claimed by China. Those quarrels were set aside for the sake of the pacts for Chinese help in building schools and hospitals, and a railway and highway.

That did not mean that disputes and differences were ignored. Xi, the first Chinese president to visit Vietnam in 10 years, called for a boosting of military and maritime relations and spoke of the need for the sides to be comrades, friends and partners.

In Singapore, he promised China would always allow freedom of navigation and flight in the South China Sea, with "the starting point and ultimate purpose" of Chinese policy being the maintenance of peace and stability.

The strategic competition between Beijing and Washington in Southeast Asia has furthered divisions within Asean. But a lack of unity does not serve Chinese or American interests; the region's potential cannot be attained if its countries do not work together for common goals.

A gap in the level of development of Asean's members has impeded its evolution. Poorer nations have suffered from a lack of infrastructure and efforts to attract investors have had little success.

Many were therefore quick to sign up to China's Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and support the "One Belt, One Road" policy.

The initiatives may yet be crucial to the success of the Asean Economic Community, to be in place by the end of the year. But reaping the benefits requires being able to handle challenges and be friendly.

Xi's visits have set the right tone.