Can East Asia carry on momentum of regional cooperation?

During Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent visits to Vietnam and Singapore, China and Vietnam agreed to connect China's initiative of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and Vietnam's "Two Corridors and One Economic Circle" plan, while China and Singapore decided to launch negotiations to upgrade their free trade agreement. These show that China's Belt and Road Initiative is providing new direction and fresh momentum for regional cooperation.

At the Sixth Trilateral Summit on Nov 1 in Seoul, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, South Korean President Park Geun Hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to "continue to develop trilateral cooperation unwaveringly".

In the next few days, the Chinese leadership's attendance at the Apec summit in the Philippines and Asean Plus One, Asean Plus Three and the East Asia Summit in Malaysia will bring a strong message of peace and cooperation. China's expectation is to further promote regional cooperation based on building trust and understanding among countries in the region.

Meanwhile, the upcoming launch of the Asean Economic Community before the end of the year, as Asia's first ever sub-regional community, will bring fresh impetus to the integration of South-east Asia and Asia as a whole.

However, we cannot ignore the fact that the momentum of regional frameworks is sidetracked by contentious issues. While regional cooperation continues to flourish, as exemplified by Asean plus China cooperation, progress in some other regional frameworks, notably the Asean Plus Three, East Asia Summit, the Asean Regional Forum and the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting Plus, has been slowing or even stalling.

So, the question is: Can East Asia carry on the momentum of regional cooperation?

East Asia cooperation has long been a pride for the region. In the 1990s, East Asian countries arrived at the common understanding that they should not be held back by differences. They started, with great courage and by upholding the principle of inclusiveness, building a concentric circle of cooperation frameworks with Asean at the centre, 10+1 and 10+3 at the next band and the East Asia Summit as a further extension, which have jointly contributed to booming regional cooperation.

Between 1985 and 2014, global gross domestic product increased 6.2 fold. The figure for the East Asian economies (Asean plus China, Japan and South Korea) in the same period is 9.3 fold. Thirty years ago, East Asian economies accounted for only less than 17 per cent of the global economy. They now account for 25 per cent.

If European integration is a process of alliance building among countries that share similar political and value systems, East Asian cooperation is all about exploring a path of multi-layer integration among countries with divergent political institutions, values and development levels. In this sense, the success of East Asia is no less important as that of Europe.

China has established the policy of promoting good neighbourliness, security and prosperity in Asia since the 1990s, and has been a staunch advocate for and major contributor to East Asian cooperation. China's support for Asean centrality in East Asian cooperation not only shows its respect for Asean's initiative, but also effectively avoided the potential negative impact on regional cooperation by competition among major countries. The model of "small horse pulling big cart", or Asean exercising a leading role in a region crowded with bigger countries by its own integration, has served this region well.

Now, China's regional policy goals remain the same. But different factors are negatively affecting the region. Apart from the global financial crisis, territorial and maritime disputes as well as inter-state water sharing issues and disputes within the region are also upsetting regional cooperation. Currently, meetings in the region tend to be dominated by negative agendas.

The emphasis on military and security agendas in the US pivot to Asia has further complicated the situation. The consensus among countries in the region on prioritising cooperation and economic development has been distracted by the United States' strong stress on the role of the exclusive military alliance, which is not in the same direction of the region's inclusive cooperation.

Another factor is that, between 2009 and 2010, the then Japanese government appeared to have put Asia in front of the relationship with the US. It seemed that this touched the red line of the US' Asia-Pacific strategy. And Japan had to change its direction. Now as a major regional country, Japan is more distracted and torn between dealing with a rising China as a threat and embracing it as opportunity.

China needs to be firm in its belief in East Asian cooperation, and not be distracted by other factors. China's Belt and Road Initiative and move to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, to a large extent inspired by its experience in regional cooperation, are aimed at providing a broader platform for common development in the region.

Is it fair to conclude that one fundamental reason for the weakening of the momentum in regional cooperation is the lowering compatibility of interests among the four stakeholders, namely, China, the US, Japan and Asean?

If yes, should we not reflect on our respective policies, and make efforts to find a balance between national interest and the bigger picture of regional cooperation?

For Asean, the priority is to maintain its will and capability in driving regional cooperation. The establishment of the Asean Economic Community will equip Asean to play a bigger role in regional affairs, though Asean integration still has a long way to go. Asean needs to win continued support for its centrality by being able to accommodate the wider interest of the region.

China-Asean relations have been strained by the escalation of territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Some Asean members diverged from the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) signed in 2001 and initiated provocative moves.

China reacted firmly to not only safeguard its legitimate rights and interests, but also to prevent further provocation. China supports Asean unity, but it cannot support Asean countries in uniting against China's national interest.

As a member of the Asia-Pacific, the US should conduct sincere dialogues with countries of the region and build bridges, instead of walls, between existing and future regional mechanisms, so as to help create an environment that is inclusive, cooperative and mutually beneficial, and is not of vicious competition and mutual hostility.

As for Japan, it needs to learn to pay heed to its neighbours and refrain from looking at issues only from its own perspective. Japan should try to achieve real reconciliation on the history issue and greater mutual understanding with its neighbours, which will help remove a big hurdle in the way of regional cooperation. China and Japan must come back to the spirit of strategic mutual benefit.

What should China's responsibility be? China needs to be firm in its belief in East Asian cooperation, and not be distracted by other factors. China's Belt and Road Initiative and move to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, to a large extent inspired by its experience in regional cooperation, are aimed at providing a broader platform for common development in the region.

As China regards its neighbourhood as crucial to its security, development and prosperity, it needs to persevere in maintaining good relationships with its neighbours and avoid mismatches between its own interest and that of the region, and continue to be prudent and opt for balanced and negotiated solutions in issues of dispute. This is also the desired approach for other countries in the region.

As responsible players in this region, we should not allow any "back stepping" of East Asian cooperation. It is necessary for us to reflect on our responsibilities and get the region back to the positive agenda instead of allowing it to be dominated by negative issues and disputes.

  • The writer chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People's Congress of the People's Republic of China and is the Specially Invited Vice-Chairperson of the China Centre for International Economic Exchanges.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2015, with the headline 'Can East Asia carry on momentum of regional cooperation?'. Print Edition | Subscribe