SPEAKING FREELY Time for China and ASEAN to make up
By Karl Lee
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Just as Beijing considers the possibility of establishing a "new partnership" with the US, a similar trend seems to be evolving between China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
In recent visits, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has explicitly stated that China will continue to follow its own "three-way formula" for the resolution of South China Sea disputes between
China and ASEAN's four claimant states. Namely, this is adherence to bilateral consultation and negotiations as the final solution, continuing discussions for a Code of Conduct and exploring the possibility of joint exploration for resources in the contested sea.
At a time when China appeared to be in a "defensive" mode against the "common values diplomacy" of Japan's Shinzo Abe administration - as demonstrated through the latter's active wooing of Southeast Asian nations - Wang's latest overture is a sign that Beijing remains highly committed to engagement with ASEAN countries, in spite of the rise of regional rows.
There are two major signals that Beijing is sending to its Southeast Asian counterparts through the Chinese foreign minister's high-level visits.
First, that Wang's Southeast Asian detour brought him to Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam but not the Philippines, is a significant indicator. It seems that Malaysia and Vietnam's hedging strategies (albeit at different levels) are not deterring China's desire to engage with them. This is in contrast to the past, when policy makers in Beijing would openly show their displeasure with dissenting countries.
Wang's call for a trustworthy partnership with Malaysia  and emphasis on Sino-Vietnamese strategic ties  have shown that Beijing is displaying more tolerance towards these states. Moreover, China is becoming more realistic in its relations with Malaysia and Vietnam. It is no longer allowing the latter two's close engagement with other foreign powers to affect overall bilateral cooperation.
Second, China is looking to reinvigorate a relatively ineffective strategic partnership that was established in 2003. It is not an exaggeration to describe the overall development of the China-ASEAN existing strategic partnership as below expectations by any standards of comprehensive bilateral ties.
Aside from substantial economic cooperation, bilateral collaborations in the politico-security area have starkly fallen behind the former. Such a trend contradicted to the leaders' pledge to form an all-round partnership as stipulated within the agreement 10 years ago.
Wang's latest visit to Southeast Asia, the third since his appointment as foreign minister, should then be understood as a renewed effort to address the unbalanced cooperation structure between China and ASEAN nations.
From Wang's explicit statement on China's preference for gradualist approach in concluding the Code of Conduct with ASEAN claimant states , it is apparent that Beijing seeks to ameliorate the existing bilateral frameworks with Southeast Asian nations as a precursor towards creating an environment that is conducive for the settlement of territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
As for ASEAN claimants in the South China Sea, they should be able to recognize that unlike the past, Wang's explicit gestures are something unusual for any Chinese foreign minister. Here, we can expect China to be more prepared than before in engaging ASEAN countries in the years to come. This is the key moment that ASEAN member states, especially those contending parties in the South China Sea dispute, should capitalize on.
Expanding bilateral cooperation in the construction, tourism, halal food, pharmaceuticals, renewable energy, and high-end manufacturing sectors would be a good start. In the politico-security area, both China and ASEAN claimant states should elevate political ties, defense exchanges and South China Sea talks into practical and multi-level frameworks, ranging from ministerial, deputy ministerial, political parties to senior officials and military units.
Through these new efforts, ASEAN countries can expect to socialize with China more than before and help Beijing assume the role of responsible stakeholder along with other powers in the region such as the United States and Japan.
Therefore, it is timely for ASEAN states, such as Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam, to redefine and rebuild their "new strategic partnerships" with China so as to better correspond to the challenging regional order. More importantly, they should recognize that this new form of partnership, predicated upon China's higher tolerance of ASEAN's hedging, is a great opportunity to take.
Karl Lee is an analyst at Anbound Malaysia, a subsidiary of Anbound China, a private think tank that is based in Beijing.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.