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Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the 17th China-Asean Expo, and China-Asean Business and Investment Summit. Photo: Xinhua

‘Let’s build a digital Silk Road’: Xi Jinping looks to cement China’s ties with Asean

  • Xi delivers keynote speech at China-Asean Expo in Nanning, saying the regional bloc is a priority for Beijing
  • Xi’s speech and Chinese foreign minister’s trip to Japan and South Korea are set against US president-elect’s declared interest in Asia-Pacific

Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged to further deepen cooperation and promote a “digital Silk Road” with Southeast Asia as Beijing moves to cement its influence in the Asia-Pacific.

The commitment comes just as the new US administration says it wants to pivot towards the region and resume a leadership role.

In a recorded message on Friday, Xi also sought to assure the Asian leaders that China gave top priority to its relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), a 10-member regional bloc, and that as the only major growing economy, China would continue its opening-up strategy to drive the global recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic – a move and that would benefit Asean.

“China will unswervingly expand its opening up to the outside world, enhancing its domestic and international economic linkages, and driving the world’s common recovery through its own recovery, from which all countries in the world, including Asean, will benefit,” Xi said via video link to participants at the China-Asean Expo in the southwestern Chinese city of Nanning.

“Looking to the future, there will be even more room for cooperation between China and Asean.”

Xi’s remarks came just two days after US president-elect Joe Biden announced that his foreign policy agenda would see the United States retake its global leadership role and strengthen its alliances in the Asia-Pacific.

On Friday, in another sign that Beijing is stepping up engagement with its neighbours, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi wrapped up his trip to key US allies, Japan and South Korea, pledging that China would join the two nations to revive their pandemic-hit economies.

Xi, who is the first Chinese president to give a keynote speech since the China-Asean Expo was established in 2004, told the summit that while the world was confronted by instability and uncertainty because of the rise of unilateralism and protectionism, China had made its relationship with Asean a priority.

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“China regards Asean as a priority in its neighbourhood diplomacy and a key area for high-quality joint construction of the Belt and Road Initiative,” Xi said referring to one of his pet projects to develop trade, investment and infrastructure along both the ancient maritime and land Silk Roads.

“[China] supports Asean’s central position in East Asian cooperation, and supports Asean to play a greater role in building an open and inclusive regional architecture,” Xi said, adding that China would “actively consider” Asean’s need for Covid-19 vaccines.

Xi also said China would continue to cooperate with Asean countries in the next five years on various areas, including infrastructure and public health, and would “positively consider the needs of Asean countries” when vaccines were ready.

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Specifically, Xi said China could work with Asean countries to establish a “China-Asean digital port to promote digital connectivity, and build a ‘digital Silk Road’.”

Beijing has sought closer ties with Asean, a regional grouping of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, to try to offset pressure from the protracted trade war launched by US President Donald Trump in 2018.

This year, the 10-member bloc overtook the European Union as the largest trading partner to China, having also surpassed the US last year amid trade friction between the world’s largest economies.

In what Beijing touted as a historic milestone in its economic integration with the region, China and the 10 countries of Asean, as well as Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia, signed up to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the world’s largest free-trade bloc, earlier this month.

The trade pact, which would see significant tariff cuts among member states in the next decade, could further expand China’s economic influence in the Asia-Pacific and counter pressure from the China-US economic decoupling.

On Friday, Xi welcomed the signing of the RCEP – which covers about 30 per cent of the world’s population and gross domestic product – and said more measures were expected to ease regional travel and cargo transport when pandemic conditions improved.

Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said the need for China to improve ties with Asean and its member states had become more urgent as political, security and ideological tensions had risen with advanced countries.

However, persistent disputes over the South China Sea remained a major problem between Beijing and oceanic Asean countries, Shi said.

“There is no change in their positions on the South China Sea. The US has heavy influence on some oceanic Asean countries, though they also know it’s unrealistic for a hi-tech decoupling with China,” he said.

“The future of China-Asean relations will be influenced by Biden’s policy over the South China Sea.”

He added that the Asean members varied in their acceptance of Beijing’s digital Silk Road proposal.

Wang Huiyao, director of the Centre for China and Globalisation, said cooperation on the digital economy was an extension of the growing economic engagement between Asean and China.

He also said Biden’s return to multilateralism would open more channels for dialogue between China and the United States, with bilateral relations expected to follow the path of “cooperative competition”.

Additional reporting by Wendy Wu

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: ‘Digital Silk Road’ part of Xi’s Asean charm offensive