Taking Asean-China ties to the next level

Singapore believes there is scope to expand cooperation and differences can be managed

On Aug 8 this year, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Asean. As we commemorate this milestone in Asean's history, it is timely to take stock of Asean's relationship with one of our key dialogue partners - China. Asean and China established dialogue partner relations in 1991. Since then, our relationship has grown rapidly to become one of Asean's most substantive dialogue partnerships. China has been a strong supporter of Asean from the outset. China was the first Asean dialogue partner to conclude a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Asean in 2002, the first to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South-east Asia and the first to establish a strategic partnership with Asean, both in 2003.

With China's huge market potential and Asean's demographic dividend coming to bear, the prospects for Asean-China economic cooperation are bright. Trade and investment ties continue to be strong. China has been Asean's largest trading partner for the last seven years while Asean has been China's third-largest trading partner for the last four years. In 2015, Asean's trade with China stood at US$346.4 billion and foreign direct investment from China to Asean reached US$8.2 billion.

Beyond our strong economic ties, Asean-China cooperation has also broadened into other areas such as education, culture, tourism and agriculture.

To consolidate and rejuvenate our existing areas of cooperation, and to explore new opportunities for collaboration, we have designated a theme for Asean-China cooperation for the past few years - last year was designated as the Asean-China Year of Educational Exchanges, while this year has been designated as the Asean-China Year of Tourism Cooperation. These themes have delivered substantive results. Asean and China experienced a significant growth in tourism exchanges last year which enabled us to attain our target of 30 million tourist arrivals both ways by 2020, four years ahead of schedule. Last year, the total number of Chinese tourists to Asean was 19.8 million, an increase of 6.4 per cent, while the number of Asean tourists to China was 10.34 million, a significant increase of 57.8 per cent. Such people-to-people exchanges have helped to enhance mutual understanding and appreciation of Asean's and China's diverse cultures and historical experiences.

Notwithstanding the current breadth and depth of our cooperation, there is still potential and much scope to further expand and deepen Asean-China cooperation.

The Master Plan for Asean Connectivity and the "Belt and Road" initiative are prime examples of mutually complementary initiatives. Both have the potential to enhance infrastructure, people-to-people, financial and information connectivity among us. We should take advantage of the synergies between these two initiatives to maximise their combined impact.

To keep up with the changing priorities of both sides, we are also looking to strengthen cooperation in anti-corruption, disaster management, healthcare and environment protection. An agreement to upgrade the Asean-China FTA was signed in 2015 and we are now working towards the implementation of the agreement as soon as possible. We also issued a Joint Statement on Production Capacity Cooperation, which seeks to achieve a more efficient distribution of resources by playing to the comparative advantage of each country.

Asean and China have benefited from a free and open trading system. Against the backdrop of anti-globalisation voices in some parts of the world, it is imperative that Asean member states and China continue to work with our partners in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to press ahead and achieve a comprehensive and high-standard RCEP that can serve as a pathway towards a future Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific. We have also designated 2018 as the Asean-China Year of Innovation, which sets the stage for greater cooperation in new technologies, digitalisation and creative solutions. As Asean and China celebrate the 15th anniversary of our strategic partnership next year, we will work together to lay out our aspirations for Asean-China relations through the Asean-China Strategic Partnership Vision. This will serve as the foundation to chart the way forward for the future development of stronger ties.

Singapore has been the country coordinator for Asean-China Dialogue Relations since August 2015. The constructive management of the South China Sea dispute has contributed to the upturn in Asean-China relations. Credit should be given to all parties for their joint efforts and for the great restraint exercised in order to achieve this positive outcome for our region and beyond. We have taken concrete steps to implement a number of confidence-building measures, such as a hotline among the foreign ministries of Asean member states and China, as well as a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea for the navies of Asean countries and China. The recent adoption of the Framework for the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea by the foreign ministers of Asean and China at the Asean Post Ministerial Conference with China has also helped reduce tensions and enhance mutual trust. Moving forward, Asean welcomes and looks forward to the commencement of negotiations on the text of the COC by this year, with the aim of achieving the expeditious conclusion of a binding COC.

As country coordinator for Asean-China relations, we have been working closely with China and other Asean member states on these and other initiatives over the past two years to advance the relationship. Next year, Singapore will also assume the role of Asean chair. We will continue to work closely with China and other Asean member states in an honest, sincere and constructive manner to enhance cooperation and mutual confidence, and jointly uphold regional peace and development. We should seize the present opportunity and ride on the positive momentum generated to bring Asean-China relations to the next level. To borrow the words of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, this would demonstrate to our people and the world that the Asean and China partnership has entered a period of maturity. We have the collective wisdom, will and capability to manage differences and not let them derail our friendship, as well as the substantial and mutually beneficial cooperation we have painstakingly built up over the years.

As we embark on a new chapter of Asean-China relations, let us work towards building an even more robust and closer Asean-China partnership based on mutual understanding, respect and our common desire for greater peace, development and prosperity for our peoples, countries and region.

  • The writer is Ambassador of the Republic of Singapore to the People's Republic of China.

  • This article was first published in Chinese in Renminwang, a website of China's People's Daily.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2017, with the headline Taking Asean-China ties to the next level. Subscribe