The idea of China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) upgrading their partnership to the highest level makes sense for both sides. Raised by Premier Li Keqiang during talks with members of the 10-nation bloc during a virtual summit, it comes amid similar efforts by the United States and Japan. Choosing one over the other is not in the interests of any country, but there are good reasons to significantly improve ties with Beijing. The same is true for the Chinese side, which already has deep trade and investment links and is eager to ensure regional peace and stability. There was ample evidence of the desire by both sides to move closer at the summit, which was hosted by Brunei. They agreed to strengthen cooperation in areas including economic integration and public health. Li announced China would provide 20 million yuan (HK$24.3 million) for emergency medical supplies for the fight against Covid-19 and was developing a global data analysis platform to improve readiness. At another meeting, also attended by Japan and South Korea, he said the region should streamline industrial chains, grow its digital economy and embrace a low-carbon system. Asean upgrades strategic ties with China, says Myanmar an ‘integral’ member An opportunity for China and Asean to lift ties to that of a comprehensive strategic partnership, the highest tier of diplomatic recognition, could come at a planned summit between President Xi Jinping and the grouping’s leaders next month. The meeting will mark the 30th anniversary of Asean-China dialogue relations. Asean and China are each other’s biggest trading partners, having formed a free-trade area, and are signatories to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the world’s largest free-trade bloc that also includes Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, and is likely to enter into force next year. Trade and investment will grow with the regional expansion of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure project, which is dramatically improving transport and communications links. But there is more to such a union than trade and investment. It could help ease tensions in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. There could also be an alignment of aspects of regional security, including joint action on terrorism, smuggling and drug trafficking. The US and Japan are also vying for Asean’s attention, and Australia last Wednesday became the first country to agree to establish a comprehensive strategic partnership with the bloc. Washington and its allies are trying to deepen their rivalry with China by getting Asean countries to choose sides, which several have objected to. With the recovery from the Covid-19 turmoil shaky, Asian nations need to embrace multilateralism and cooperation. Falling prey to divisiveness will only divert from the goal of peaceful and stable growth and development.