|'Big brother' China woos
By Isagani de Castro
PHNOM PENH - At the rate China has been reaching
out to Southeast Asia in the past few days, it could
well emerge as the "big brother" to whom the region's
countries look to in economic development.
Monday, Beijing and the 10-member Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had signed four
agreements - on free trade, cooperation in such areas as
drug trafficking, agricultural cooperation and a
landmark declaration on territorial disputes in the
South China Sea.
Through these accords, China
has gone ahead of rival Japan - which Southeast Asian
countries have traditionally followed in the
flying-geese pattern of economic development - in
setting the stage for healthy economic and political
ties with the region.
Two of the four agreements
are particularly significant. Cambodian diplomat Dr Chem
Widhya called the free-trade agreement the economic
pillar of ASEAN-China ties, and the South China Sea
declaration their political pillar.
Deputy Foreign Minister Wang Yi says that today, China
and ASEAN are seeking "common security" in their ties.
"The common security that China and ASEAN are after is a
new concept and a modality of security that is a clean
break from Cold War models of security," he told a news
briefing on Monday night.
He said the
China-ASEAN Free Trade Area, proposed by Chinese Premier
Zhu Rongji last year and signed by Beijing and ASEAN at
their leaders' meeting here on Monday, was but a
"practical" move to ensure that East Asia keeps up with
other regions' pace of integration.
China-ASEAN Free Trade Area would be the very first
between South countries. So we hope this will turn into
an example of South-South cooperation," Wang added.
As for the declaration on the South China Sea,
which stresses a desire to prevent further tensions over
territorial disputes over the resource-rich Spratly
Islands, he said: "The deal actually symbolizes new
progress in China's relations with ASEAN. It also
signals a new level [of] trust between the two parties."
Widhya agreed, saying the agreements mean "we agree to
come together in a kind of political cooperation in the
Asia-Pacific in terms of commitment to ensure security,
to ensure stability, to ensure peace".
economic sphere, a Filipino diplomat says, it is clear
that "China wants to be the dominant economic player in
the region". Media reports in Thailand called Beijing's
moves at the eighth ASEAN summit here a "grand-slam
The agreement on economic cooperation
signed by China and ASEAN on Monday evening, which will
come into force next July 1, would cover 1.7 billion
consumers and two-way annual trade of US$1.2 trillion.
China and ASEAN together would make the world's biggest
free-trade area. The free-trade agreement will eliminate
tariffs and non-tariff barriers to goods and services,
but give special and differential treatment and
flexibility to the newer ASEAN member states, Cambodia,
Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. China also decided to help
Cambodia by writing off its debt, said to be about $200
China and the six original ASEAN states
- Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines,
Singapore and Thailand - are to be in the free-trade
area by 2010. The less developed members Cambodia, Laos,
Myanmar and Vietnam would follow by 2015. The
China-ASEAN Free Trade Area is designed to soothe
Southeast Asia's worries about being edged out after
China's entry into the World Trade Organization late
The ASEAN-China declaration on the
South China Sea, where Beijing's aggressive behavior and
occupation of islets in the disputed Spratly Islands has
long been a concern, addresses some of Southeast Asia's
biggest security worries about China.
effect of this is to convey a sense of stability in the
region," said ASEAN secretary general Rodolfo Severino.
China's objective, Wang Yi added, "lies in our
perception of the need for peace and stability in the
South China Sea area".
China, along with four
ASEAN countries - the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and
Malaysia - are claimants to the Spratlys. Taiwan is the
sixth claimant. About 25 percent of world shipping moves
through the South China Sea. It is also critical for
military fleets that move from the Pacific region to the
The Declaration on the Conduct of
Parties in the South China Sea, which addresses the
non-use of force by six countries in their overlapping
claims in the Spratlys, was not expected to be signed at
this summit because of some disagreements. But a
breakthrough occurred on Friday, after Malaysia proposed
that ASEAN and China consider issuing a political
declaration instead of the original, legally binding
code of conduct that ASEAN has not had much success in
getting Beijing to sign on to.
Commenting on the
speed at which the declaration came through after at
least eight years of discussions, a Filipino official
said: "China set this summit as the deadline to conclude
a declaration on the South China Sea. It's part of her
China has also seen the
opportunities that ASEAN's market of 500 million people
and rich natural resources offer, and Southeast Asia
realizes that it has little choice but to engage with
China. It has already been losing foreign investments to
China. Foreign direct investments in ASEAN in 2000 were
at $10 billion, a 37 percent decline from $16 billion in
1999. The figure was $27 billion in 1997, before the
Asian economic crisis struck.
A study by the
ASEAN secretariat estimates that an ASEAN-China Free
Trade Area would raise ASEAN's exports to China by 48
percent and China's exports to ASEAN by 55 percent.
China's recent overtures show the level of
security it feels in the region as it gains economic
strength. It could not push for good relations during
the Cold War when it still felt "besieged by hostile
forces", analysts said. At that time, China felt that
Southeast Asia had the "potential of being used by
others to launch hostile actions against China",