A Chinese initiative to connect with South-east Asia through transport and infrastructure projects could help deepen Asean integration, said experts at a forum yesterday.
Further economic cooperation between China and countries in the region under the "Maritime Silk Road" framework could help ease tensions over the South China Sea disputes, they said at the Boao Forum for Asia. Held in Hainan, China, the event ended yesterday.
"If countries around the South China Sea focus on the Maritime Silk Road initiative, a lot can change, and it could enlarge common interests while shrinking differences," said Professor Zheng Yongnian, who is director of the East Asian Institute in Singapore.
The Maritime Silk Road envisages a China linked to Europe via a sea route that cuts through South-east Asia. It is part of Chinese President Xi Jinping's "One Belt, One Road" grand plan proposed in 2013 to revive two ancient trade routes. The other is an overland "Silk Road Economic Belt" connecting China with Europe through Central Asia.
Former Malaysian diplomat Rastam Mohd Isa sees a strong link between the Chinese initiative and the Master Plan on Asean Connectivity 2025, which aims to boost trade in the region through improved transport, logistics and information technology links.
If countries around the South China Sea focus on the Maritime Silk Road initiative, a lot can change, and it could enlarge common interests while shrinking differences.
PROFESSOR ZHENG YONGNIAN, director of the East Asian Institute in Singapore.
He feels the initiatives are complementary as they seek to realise a common goal of achieving peace and stability in the region.
"Asean and China can and should cooperate in many areas in the South China Sea," added the chairman of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia.
The international relations experts were speaking at a discussion on how to enhance trust and promote cooperation for the common development of the greater South China Sea region. The Boao forum is touted to be China's answer to the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Former Thai deputy premier Surakiart Sathirathai listed tourism, joint fishery management, maritime conservation and environmental research as areas where China and Asean could cooperate.
He cited the joint development by Malaysia and Thailand of the oil and gas resources in the Gulf of Thailand since 1979 as an example of how countries could put aside territorial disputes in order to work together.
"There has been no conflict or clash because we are happy with the profit sharing," he noted.
He suggested that both China and Asean nominate scholars and former policymakers to look into possible areas of cooperation.
Pending the results of the study, no country should be allowed to take any action, he pointed out.
China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have competing claims in the South China Sea.
The attitude of Asean countries towards the Maritime Silk Road has generally been positive but experts say there is still a lack of clarity over issues such as transparency.
Also unclear are whether there will be room for private-sector participation and whether the infrastructure investments will lead to strong development outcomes.
"People still want clarifications with respect to the Maritime Silk Road (initiative)," said Tan Sri Rastam.