China’s ASEAN Opportunity

The dispute in the South China Sea may grab the headlines, but China’s role in Southeast Asia can be positive.

China’s use of hard and soft power has been of increasing interest in recent years, not least to the countries of Southeast Asia.

China’s rapidly growing military arsenal undoubtedly gives it an enormous advantage over many of its Southeast Asian neighbors. Beijing has rapidly acquired and produced naval warships, has expanded development of its intelligence gathering, and has held joint military exercises with fellow nuclear power Pakistan. It is also trying to project a more robust military presence in the South China Sea – the site of numerous ongoing territorial disputes – aimed at enabling its navy to conduct better surveillance, enforce strategic blockades, and control the high level of sea traffic which passes through the area, according to a U.S. Defense Department report produced earlier this year.

Despite these concerns, I would still say that China has shown considerable restraint in its disputes. In July, China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states began plans to implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, an agreement signed by the members back in 2002, but lacking any real bite. Article Five of the declaration suggests several ways “in the spirit of cooperation and understanding, to build trust and confidence between and among” the parties.

The declaration discourages unilateral action as well as attempts to resort to military means to resolve the dispute. It splits the sea into disputed and non-disputed areas, calling for the former to be demilitarized and subject to joint patrols and usage.  Building upon that minor success, China and Vietnam signed a six-point agreement in October that sought to end the maritime dispute and make the region a zone “of peace, friendship and cooperation.”

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China and Southeast Asia’s economic relationship, meanwhile, has largely been to their mutual benefit. China’s incredible pace of industrialization has allowed Beijing to significantly ramp up exports. But even as China’s economy has grown, both it and ASEAN have benefitted from the creation of the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA), which has resulted in greater integration between Beijing and ASEAN member states.

ACFTA went into effect on January 1, 2010, creating the largest free trade area in the world in terms of population covered. The agreement reduced tariffs on imports and encourages the transnational exchange of goods and services with a minimum of regulation.

Ultimately, China has enormous potential to be a vital partner for Southeast Asia, despite the headline-grabbing stories of its ability to flex its military muscles in the region. Hard power might make for interesting copy, but if China can continue to build on its soft power achievements in the region, the profitable economic relationship with ASEAN countries offers all involved a bright future.