Asean centrality matters for East Asia cooperation

The year 2016 marks the first year after the establishment of the Asean Community on Thursday.

What impact the Asean Community will have on Asean centrality in regional affairs is a topical issue for many observers. Asean centrality is the principle that the South-east Asian grouping of 10 countries should remain at the centre of regional cooperation. Asean centrality, and the development of Asean countries, sets a good example of successful promotion of democracy in international relations in East Asia, and well serves peace, stability and development in the region.

These days, the process of world multi-polarisation and regional integration remains in the ascendant. With Asean being the most integrated and representative inter-governmental organisation in East Asia, maintaining Asean centrality not only serves the current regional development, but is also consistent with the major trend of world development.

No country knows better than Asean countries do about the urgent challenges confronting South-east Asia and the top priorities in regional cooperation. With Asean being the locomotive for regional cooperation, common interests and concerns of the countries in the region could be represented and addressed to the utmost, and the development of the various regional cooperation mechanisms could be well oriented.

The regional cooperation mechanisms spearheaded by Asean could also provide an important platform for countries both within and outside the region to share views and meet challenges in regional affairs. From my point of view, the establishment of the Asean Community will further strengthen Asean centrality.

Under the Asean Community, Asean countries will be further integrated in terms of politics, security, economy and socio-culture, which will give Asean as a whole a resonant voice in regional cooperation.

Some analyses show that the establishment of the Asean Economic Community may boost the growth rate of the Asean economy by up to about 7 per cent. By 2020, Asean economic aggregate output would have grown from US$2.5 trillion (S$3.5 trillion) to US$4.7 trillion, rising from the seventh largest to the fourth in the world.

By 2030, Asean's middle-class population will have doubled, topping 163 million. We will also see a sharp increase in foreign investment in Asean. Under the Asean Community, member countries will be further integrated in terms of politics, security, economy and socio-culture, which will give Asean as a whole a resonant voice in regional cooperation.

NEW CHALLENGES FOR ASEAN COMMUNITY

However, new circumstances also bring forth new problems and challenges for Asean. In recent years, East Asia enjoyed overall stability, and peace, development and cooperation define the main policies of the regional countries.

At the same time, the international and regional landscapes are undergoing profound adjustment.

Both competition and cooperation among major countries take on fresh traits. The world economy still staggers on the way to recovery, while some countries in the region are struggling with economic downward pressure. Traditional and non-traditional security threats loom large in the region. Our region is facing the challenges of growing variety and complexity.

SECURING ASEAN CENTRALITY

Therefore, sustaining Asean centrality demands both concerted efforts of Asean countries and active cooperation from countries beyond the region.

To secure Asean centrality, the main theme of peace and development should be kept up with. The primary reason why East Asia can lead the world in economic growth has been the peaceful and stable environment it enjoys.

But look at the Middle East - turmoil and chaos persist, with some countries caught up in political unrest and people thrown into destitution. Peace has been already beyond reach, let alone development.

As the leading force in regional cooperation, Asean countries should cherish the hard-won peace and stability in the region and focus firmly on boosting economic growth and improving well-being of the peoples.

Especially when dealing with differences and disputes among the countries, Asean should adhere to dialogue and negotiations, and prevent individual countries from disturbing or even undermining, for their own ulterior motives, the overall cooperation in East Asia.

To secure Asean centrality, interaction with major powers outside the region should be properly handled, since they are becoming more and more engaged in regional affairs. Asean could stand out as a qualified coordinator among major powers by guiding regional cooperation in such a way that the major powers engage themselves with regional affairs in an orderly manner, interact with each other under an Asean-centred regional cooperation framework and increase their future engagement in the interest of regional peace and development.

Though it is more than natural for major powers to disagree on certain issues, Asean countries should have adequate wisdom to accommodate the common interests of all parties and promote cooperation among them, rather than taking advantage of their disputes to pursue short-term gains.

To secure Asean centrality, balanced development should be achieved in Asean.

Despite having 9 per cent of the world's population, Asean's GDP makes up only 3 per cent of the world's, indicating that there is still huge room for economic growth.

The enormous development gap among Asean countries has, to some extent, already affected their economic competitiveness in the world and held back investment in the manufacturing industry and infrastructure development.

Asean members have different political systems, religions and cultures, which also contribute to difficulties in integration.

Under such circumstances, Asean countries should strengthen mutual assistance in an effort to achieve common development, enhance cohesion, accelerate the integration process and increase the overall influence of Asean in the region and the world at large.

FIRM SUPPORT FOR ASEAN

As Asean's good neighbour, good friend and good partner, China has always been firmly supporting Asean centrality in regional cooperation in East Asia.

In October 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the Indonesian Parliament, pointing out: "China is ready to discuss with Asean countries the prospect of concluding a treaty of good-neighbourliness, friendship and cooperation in a joint effort to build good-neighbourly relations. China will continue to support Asean in growing its strength, building Asean community and playing a central role in regional cooperation."

Last month, Premier Li Keqiang declared at the 18th China-Asean Summit: "China has always regarded Asean as a priority in its neighbourhood diplomacy. We firmly support Asean's integration and community-building efforts, and support Asean centrality in regional cooperation."

China's support of Asean centrality has been reflected throughout the process of China-Asean cooperation. Next year marks the 25th anniversary of China-Asean dialogue relations. Our trade volume has increased from US$7 billion 25 years ago to US$480 billion last year. Two-way investment has also jumped - from US$500 million to US$130 billion.

China has been Asean's largest trading partner for seven consecutive years and Asean has been China's third-largest trading partner for four years in a row.

At the end of this year, the total exchange of tourists between China and Asean countries is expected to exceed 20 million visits. China and Asean countries are well poised to work hand in hand in opening up a whole new vista for the development of East Asia.

  • The writer is China's ambassador to Asean.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2015, with the headline 'Asean centrality matters for East Asia cooperation'. Print Edition | Subscribe