Southeast Asia

'Big brother' China woos ASEAN
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.

As of 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.

Chinese 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.

"The 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".

In the 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 win".

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 million.

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 last year.

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.

"The 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 Indian Ocean.

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 public relations."

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", Severino said.

(Inter Press Service)
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