China-ASEAN Relations at 30: Braving Ups and Downs and Creating the Future Together

By Yang Jian

When Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the then Malaysian Foreign Minister, invited the then Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen to attend the opening ceremony of the 24th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held on July 20, 1991, the international situation was undergoing drastic changes: the former Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse, the Cambodian issue was still to be fully resolved, ASEAN had only six members, and China had not yet established diplomatic relations with Brunei. At that time,China and ASEAN, as an organization establishedin 1967, were lack of communication and mutual trust. Nonetheless, leaders of China and ASEAN countries saw the importance to themselves of developing friendly relations and, in an act of strategic foresight, made the historic decision to start the dialogue process.

Thirty years on, China-ASEAN relations have witnessed remarkable progress in various fields such as politics, trade, security, culture and health. The frequent interactions, close cooperation, and fruitful results between the two sides have exceeded the world’s imagination, to the great benefit of the peoples of China and ASEAN countries.

Thirty years later, the international landscape is undergoing drastic changes again. Both China and ASEAN are facing the serious task of maintaining regional peace and stability and boosting national development and prosperity amidst new challenges. To reexamine the process of China-ASEAN cooperation since the establishment of the dialogue relations may be helpful for the two sides to make a fresh start.

Cooperating through Rain or Shine fora Better Tomorrow

Over the past three decades, China and ASEAN both have made extraordinary achievements. The same is true for the regional cooperation mechanism with ASEAN at the center.

ASEAN had only five members when it was founded in 1967, and Brunei joined after its independence in 1984. In the 1990s, ASEAN gradually grew into a regional organization covering the whole of Southeast Asia after taking in Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. Based on the “ASEAN Way”, an approach created by the Organization that respects the characteristics of the region, ASEAN helped bring peace to the previously war-torn region through dialogue and cooperation and promoted peace, stability and development.

In 1992, ASEAN adopted the Singapore Declaration and the Framework Agreement on Enhancing Economic Cooperation, envisioning to form, within 15 years or by 2008, the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), which was officially launched in 2002. In 2003, ASEAN decided to establish the ASEAN Community. In 2007, on the occasion of the Organization’s 40th anniversary, ASEAN leaders signed the Cebu Declaration on Accelerating the Establishment of the ASEAN Community by 2015 to accelerate the Community building process. In November of the same year, ASEAN leaders signed the ASEAN Charter, which came into force on December 15, 2008, defining the legal status and institutional framework of ASEAN and laying a solid foundation for the ASEAN Community.The year 2015 then saw the establishment of the ASEAN Community, which comprises the three pillars of political-security, economic and socio-cultural communities. The ASEAN Community Vision 2025 was also adopted in the same year.

While accelerating internal integration, ASEAN has played a leading role in building regional cooperation mechanisms as well, forging dialogue partnerships with a number of countries. As of today, ASEAN has 10 dialogue partners (Australia, Canada, China, EU, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia, and the United States), 4 sectoral dialogue partners (Norway,Pakistan, Switzerland and Turkey) and 4 development partners (Chile, France, Germany and Italy).

In 1994, ASEAN created the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) with the aim to build more stable relationships with major powers and to facilitate exchanges among major powers with close ties to Southeast Asia. The Forum, which now boasts 27 members and multiple Track I and Track II meeting mechanisms, is the most important platform for political and security dialogue in the Asia-Pacific region.

In the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, ASEAN held an informal ASEAN+3 leaders’ summit with China, Japan and South Korea in Malaysia, initiating the process of East Asia cooperation, which was institutionalized in 1999 when the Leaders issued a Joint Statement on East Asia Cooperation. In 2007, the Second Joint Statement on East Asian Cooperation reaffirmed that the ASEAN+3 Process would remain as the main vehicle towards the long-term goal of building an East Asian community, with ASEAN as the driving force. In 2017, the Manila Declaration was released at the 20th ASEAN Plus Three (APT) Commemorative Summit. At present, the APT framework has 65 cooperation mechanisms covering various fields.

In 2005, with the effort of ASEAN, the First East Asia Summit was held in Kuala Lumpur, which was attended by state leaders of all ten ASEAN countries and China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. The United States and Russia officially joined the East Asia Summit in 2011.

To strengthen security and defense cooperation with its dialogue partners, ASEAN launched the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+) in 2010 with eight countries, namely Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, and the United States. The ADMM+ has been held annually ever since 2017.

ASEAN has successively formed free trade areas with China, South Korea, Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand. In 2012, ASEAN reached a consensus with the above six countries to kick-start negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP). After several rounds of negotiations, the RCEP was signed in November 2020 by the ten ASEAN member countries, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, with an open door reserved for India.

The ASEAN economy has been very active in recent years, with a number of member countries achieving sustained and rapid growth. ASEAN’s GDP reached 3 trillion US dollars in 2019, making it the world’s fifth largest economy.

China’s journey in the past 30 years, on the other hand, can be summarized by “continuous reform and opening up leading to continuous economic growth”. From opening up coastal areas to opening up inland central cities, and then to joining the World Trade Organization; from “bringing in” to “going global”; from the “Belt and Road Initiative” to the holding of the China International Import Expo (CIIE), and then to the construction of the Hainan Free Trade Port, China has opened its door wider and wider to the world. From the traditional planned economic system to the socialist market economic system, and then to enable the market to play the decisive role in resource allocation and make the government better play its role; from a single public ownership system to a basic economic system in which public ownership is the mainstay and economic entities of diverse ownership develop together, China has never stopped the reform of its economic system. In addition to economic reform, China has also carried out major reforms in the Party and state institutions, the administrative system, the system of rule of law, the judicial system,  the foreign affairs system, the social governance system, the system of ecological and environmental inspection, the national security system, and the national defense and military, to continuously strengthen its governance capacity.

China has been the world’s second largest economy since 2010. In 2020, China’s GDP topped 100 trillion yuan (14.7 trillion US dollars) for the first time, and is estimated to account for about 17% of global GDP. China has accomplished the targets for winning the battle against poverty, and made historic achievements in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects.

China-ASEAN relations have seen constant new progress in the past three decades. In 1996, China became a full dialogue partner of ASEAN. The two sides decided to establish a “21st Century-oriented Partnership of Good Neighborliness and Mutual Trust” in 1997 and signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002. In 2003, among all ASEAN’s dialogue partners, China took the lead in acceding to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, and the two sides decided to upgrade ASEAN-China relationship to strategic partnership for peace and prosperity. In 2008, China appointed its first ambassador to ASEAN. In 2011, the China-ASEAN Center was formally established. In 2012, China set up its Permanent Mission and began posting Ambassadors to ASEAN. In 2018, China and ASEAN jointly issued the China-ASEAN Strategic Partnership Vision 2030.

In 2002, China and ASEAN signed the Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation, kicking off the negotiations on building the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area (FTA), which was completed on schedule in 2010. In 2019, the China-ASEAN FTA Upgrading Protocol took full effect. Since 2004, China and ASEAN have held the China-ASEAN Expo and the China-ASEAN Business and Investment Summit in Nanning, China every year, and China has remained ASEAN’s top trading partner since 2009. In 2020, while global economy has been hit hard due to the COVID-19 pandemic, bilateral trade and two-way investment between China and ASEAN grew against the headwind, with ASEAN overtaking the EU and the US as China’s top trading partner. Bilateral trade volume in 2020 is 86 times that of 1991.

The road that China and ASEAN have travelled together has not been an easy one. The two sides have stood alongside with each other against the Asian financial crisis, the global financial crisis, the SARS epidemic, tsunami disasters and now the havoc of the COVID-19 pandemic. In every difficult moment, China and ASEAN have stood by each other and supported each other, demonstrating the closeness and resilience of their cooperation.

The development of China-ASEAN relations over the past three decades has by no means been smooth sailing. Like all neighbors in the world, China and ASEAN have had their bumps along the way. Cultural differences have once led to misunderstandings, frictions have arisen out of frequent interactions, historical grievances have been re-inflamed from time to time, and unresolved territorial and maritime delimitation disputes have repeatedly stirred up public sentiment. Fortunately, every time China-ASEAN relations encountered difficulties, the two sides have eventually returned to the path of resolving differences through dialogue and consultation. As Premier Li Keqiang said, after three decades of development, China-ASEAN relations have seen “growing maturity and stability”.

It can be said that while the olive branch ASEAN extended to China has expanded  the space and opportunities for its own development, China’s sincere engagement with ASEAN guided by the principle of “building friendship and partnership with neighboring countries” has promoted the stability of China’s neighboring environment and the development of its domestic economy. At the same time, the fact that China has prioritized relations and maintained close cooperation with ASEAN has served as an impetus for the development of ASEAN’s relations with other countries, enhancing ASEAN’s international status. Cooperation between China and ASEAN has not only achieved a win-win situation, but also facilitated regional cooperation and economic integration in East Asia, as well as the overall development of Asia at large.

Braving Ups and Downs and Creating the Future Together

On October 3, 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a speech at the Indonesian Parliament entitled “Join Hands to Build a China-ASEAN Community with a Shared Future”, in which he called for joint efforts with ASEAN in building an even closer China-ASEAN community with a shared future. This was the first time President Xi had proposed the concept of “building a community with a shared future”, which is testimony to the priority of ASEAN in China’s diplomacy.

The notion of Building a Community with a Shared Future for Mankind put forward by China has been repeatedly included in United Nations resolutions. There are people who still have doubts about and even question this idea. However, the COVID-19 pandemic that is still ravaging the world and the consequent economic crisis have revealed in a very harsh way that in today’s world, no matter where we are, the fates of mankind are indeed closely intertwined. Faced with common challenges, no country can respond alone or stand aloof. Beggar-thy-neighbor practices only do harm to each other, while helping others is helping ourselves.

Faced with the sudden outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and amid all sorts of negative noises, China and ASEAN, a pair of partners who has repeatedly weathered through thick and thin together and thus maintained deep mutual understanding, joined hands in cooperation and achieved successes in the fight against the pandemic as well as work and production resumption. When China was hit off-guard by the outbreak, ASEAN leaders, governments, private individuals and institutions expressed sympathy and offered assistance. In the Chairman’s Statement on ASEAN Collective Response to the Outbreak of Coronavirus Disease 2019 issued on February 15, 2020, ASEAN countries specifically expressed their sincere support for China. On February 20, the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) was held, at which the two sides decided to cope with the pandemic and its resulting consequences together. When the Disease was spreading across ASEAN, China’s central government, local governments, military, businesses and non-governmental organizations provided a large amount of medical material assistance to ASEAN countries. China held video conferences with ASEAN countries to share experience in fighting the pandemic and sent medical teams to several ASEAN countries. China also carried out vaccine cooperation with Indonesia and other countries, and provided vaccine assistance to several ASEAN countries.

In order to reduce the pandemic-inflicted loss to bilateral economic and trade cooperation, China and ASEAN countries have created “fast tracks” and “green lanes” to facilitate the flow of people and goods, working hard to forge ahead with “Belt and Road” as well as other cooperation projects. During the pandemic prevention and control period, the construction of China-Laos railroad saw significant progress, the Tunnel 3 of the Jakarta-Bandung high speed railway (JBHSR) project was drilled through, the first international freight train between the Yangtze River Delta region and ASEAN traveling from Nantong, China to Hanoi, Vietnam was launched, financial cooperation within the framework of the China-Singapore connectivity initiative has radiated to seven provinces and regions in western China, and the 3rd Lancang-Mekong Cooperation(LMC) leaders’ meeting decided to push for the synergizing of the LMC with the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor.

It is due to the determination and actions of China and ASEAN to work together that the trade volume grew by 6.7% against all odds to a record 684.6 billion US dollars in 2020, while ASEAN became China’s top trading partner for the first time ever. In 2020, China’s industry-wide foreign direct investment in ASEAN topped 14.36 billion US dollars, jumping 52.1% year-on-year, while ASEAN investment in China also achieved growth.

In November 2020, Chinese and ASEAN leaders issued the Plan of Action to Implement the Joint Declaration on China-ASEAN Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity (2021-2025) and the Initiative on Building China-ASEAN Partnership on Digital Economy, designating the year 2021 as the China-ASEAN Year of Sustainable Development Cooperation. The two sides also agreed to undertake consultation and coordination in exploring the establishment of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between ASEAN and China. Looking into the future, China will accelerate the creation of a new development paradigm withdomestic circulation as the mainstay and domestic and foreign circulations reinforcing each other, while ASEAN, with its young population, rich resources and huge market, will further have its development potential tapped. China-ASEAN cooperation will certainly open up broader prospects.

It must be admitted that, in addition to the difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Asia-Pacific region, which is home to both China and ASEAN, and the world at large, are undergoing major changes, bringing much uncertainty to regional peace and development. Relations between China and the United States, which have global implications, are in the most difficult situation since the normalization of diplomatic relations. Despite the fact that China has repeatedly expressed willingness to work with the United States to promote sound and stable bilateral development of relations in the spirit of “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation”, it is still unclear whether the new US.administration will return to a rational policy toward China. Protectionism and anti-globalization voices are on the rise in some countries, and certain forces are undermining the international trade order out of a zero-sum mindset, causing more difficulties to the global economic recovery. Climate change has made natural disasters more frequent, and mankind’s excessive demands on nature may lead to more unexpected disasters.

After years of engagement, cooperation between China and ASEAN has reached an unprecedentedly high level, but there is still room to build more mutual trust. Particularly, with the rapid rise of China’s comprehensive national strength, some ASEAN countries feel unease and pressured. The interference of certain external forces has further confounded the situation and made it even harder to address hotspot issues of the region. 

None of the above challenges will be met without the joint efforts of China and ASEAN, who are inseparable neighbors with their interests closely intertwined.

Looking ahead, both sides should first enhance mutual understanding and trust. For China, the next step is to achieve targets set in the 14th Five-Year Plan for national economic and social developmentand the Vision2035. These targets cannot be realized without the support and cooperation of the international community, of which ASEAN is an indispensable member. For ASEAN countries, regardless of their levels of development, fostering sustained economic growth and improving people’s living standards remain the top priority, and China has been and will continue to be their strongest and most reliable partner. Despite differences, both sides have the major common interest in maintaining and consolidating a peaceful and stable regional environment for their respective domestic development, for the national interests of China and ASEAN countries, and for the interests of their peoples. 

In 2015, the year the ASEAN Community was established, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech at the Boao Forum for Asia entitled “Towards a Community of Common Destiny and a New Future for Asia”, proposing that Asian countries should through efforts towards a community with a shared future for Asia, promote a community of common interest for all mankind.

We cannot choose our neighbors, but we can choose our future. The future of Asia hinges on the choices made by China, ASEAN and all other Asian countries. It is in the common interest and responsibility of China and ASEAN to keep pace with the times, work together to build a closer China-ASEAN community with a shared future and create a better future for Asia.

Yang Jian is Research Fellow of Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, Director of the Center for China’s Relations with Neighboring Countries, and the former Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Negara Brunei Darussalam.