China needs to focus on building mutual trust before it can get countries to support the Silk Road initiative.
The Nation/ Asia News Network
There was no doubt what the hoopla at the 11th China-Asean Expo (CAExpo) last week in Nanning, a south-western city of China, was all about: Beijing was officially launching the "One Belt, One Road" initiative with a big bang.
Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli, declaring open the annual event, cited an old Chinese saying: "When brothers share the same purpose, they will be strong enough to cut through metal."
But his six-point proposal failed to address an equally crucial aspect of the ties between China and the 10-member Asean: What happens when brothers share one purpose but disagree on another issue?
The Silk Route Economic Belt and its maritime equivalent are being vigorously promoted as China's strategic initiative to boost investments and foster collaboration across countries once linked by the historic Silk Road.
Reactions from the 10 Asean members have been mixed, with one commentator in the Asian Medias Forum - the first of its kind in this annual event - observing: "I have not seen or heard one Asean member coming out publicly to support the Maritime Silk Road so far, because of what I see as a trust deficit in the relationship between China and some Asean members over the South China Sea dispute."
Mr Zhang was obviously aware of the lingering suspicion of certain Asean members - particularly Vietnam and the Philippines - over China's overall intentions in the region. He promised to develop relations with Asean under what he called "the principle of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness".
Another speaker at the CAExpo Asian Medias Forum, co-organised by the China Daily, Asia News Network (ANN) and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, noted that China's Maritime Silk Road faces several challenges, the most obvious being: How to ease the strategic concern, or apprehension, about China's overall political, economic and security advances in the region.
"The other challenge is how China and Asean could work out a multilateral rather than a bilateral approach so that all countries can derive maximum benefits from the joint schemes. China may prefer a bilateral arrangement but most Asean members would rather deal with China on a multilateral basis," said another commentator.
He placed Asean members into three categories over China's aggressive Silk Route initiative:
1. Those ready to offer full support include Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
2. Those who are largely supportive while harbouring strategic concerns about a new China-centred order may include Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.
3. The least supportive would be the Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar, who have yet to be convinced of the real benefits of China's latest move.
Beijing has repeatedly sought to assure its neighbours and the world at large that it is pursuing a "peaceful rise" and that it would never follow a policy of hegemony.
But public statements from the top leadership have at times underscored the deep suspicion that Beijing is far from flexible when it comes to discussing solutions to her problems with other countries.
"China, now engaged in deepening comprehensive reform and opening wider to the outside world, is working towards the Chinese dream of the great renewal of the Chinese nation," the Vice-Premier said.
He didn't elaborate on what was meant by "the Chinese dream of the great renewal of the Chinese nation" - a clause that might raise more questions about China's ambitions than did the pledge in another part of his speech to uphold its commitment to "the path of peaceful development and the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence".
While critics have pointed to China's sometimes abrasive behaviour in dealing with competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, Mr Zhang declared: "China firmly upholds its territorial sovereignty, maritime rights and interests and national security."
But he was quick to add that Beijing was also "committed to peacefully solving the disputes with countries directly concerned through consultations and negotiations on the basis of respect for history and international law".
The real test of China's sincerity in finding a peaceful resolution to the South China Sea disputes is whether all parties concerned can forge ahead in implementing the long-awaited Code of Conduct - and whether the idea of joint development projects in disputed areas can be discussed to achieve genuine cooperation, instead of confrontation.
China says the Maritime Silk Road initiative is a "win-win" proposition for China and Asean. Premier Li Keqiang put forward a "2+7 Cooperation Framework" at last year's China-Asean Summit, emphasising "two points of consensus and seven areas of cooperation".
But before any win-win formula can be achieved, China will have to work hard to remove suspicions about her intentions and clearly demonstrate a willingness to compromise on sensitive issues. Otherwise, trust and collaboration cannot be achieved.
The 21st-century Maritime Silk Road initiative must be strongly bolstered by a 21st-century diplomacy of mutual trust and interdependence.