Southeast Asia’s annual summit season has just ended. Indonesia hosted the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, while Brunei, as current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), hosted the ASEAN Summit, East Asia Summit and other related ASEAN meetings. Media coverage contrasted President Barack Obama’s “no show” with President Xi Jinping’s successful debut in the region. Xi became the first person to address a joint sitting of Indonesia’s parliament, and also paid a state visit to Malaysia.
Much of the media coverage and commentary by analysts rightly stressed Xi’s major economic initiatives, including the establishment of an Asian infrastructure development bank and a new 100 billion yuan ($US16.3 billion) currency swap agreement between the Chinese and Indonesian central banks.
Little notice was given to Beijing's defense and security agenda, however. For example, in Xi’s address to the Indonesian parliament on October 3, he proposed a Treaty of Good Neighborliness, Friendship, and Cooperation between China and ASEAN. According to a commentary by Ruan Zongze, the deputy director of the China Institute of International Studies, in an article published last week, the purpose of the treaty was “to cement peaceful relations with ASEAN countries…and to eliminate any ASEAN countries’ misgivings about China.”
Xi met with his counterparts, Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak, and secured their agreement to raise bilateral relations to comprehensive strategic partnerships. Each statement on comprehensive strategic partnership included a clause on defense and security cooperation.
For example, when Xi and Yudhoyono met on October 2, they agreed “to strengthen security communication and coordination through defense consultations and navy dialogues…” On the following day, the two presidents issued a joint statement on the “Future Direction of China-Indonesia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.” This document included a commitment to enhance bilateral defense ties by conducting joint military exercises and training, and to cooperate in maritime security, defense industry, and non-traditional security areas – such as consultations on counter-terrorism.
In Malaysia, Xi and Najib met on October 4. During the meeting, Xi put forward a five-point proposal that included making full use “of the defense and security consultation mechanism” as well as aiming to “increase exchanges between the two militaries, deepen law-enforcement cooperation, and join hands in combating terrorism and trans-border crimes.” After their talks they announced that they would raise bilateral relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership. At a press conference President Xi stated, “We have agreed to strengthen our partnership with naval defense, joint military exercises to combat terrorism, transnational crime and promote security.”
After Xi concluded his state visits, China Premier Li Keqiang attended the 16th China-ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting in Brunei. Li proposed cooperation in seven areas including active discussions on signing a Treaty on Good Neighborliness, Friendship, and Cooperation and boosting maritime cooperation and exchanges in the field of security. In his remarks to the 8th East Asia Summit the following day, Li promoted a “new security concept” incorporating comprehensive security, common security, cooperative security and candid dialogue.
Defense and security cooperation between China and Malaysia dates back to 2000 with the signing of a long-term cooperative framework agreement. This agreement included a defense clause calling for an exchange program of high-level visits, study tours, seminars, ship visits, and cooperation in training, research and development, and intelligence sharing. In addition, the agreement also called for cooperation between national defense industries to include reciprocal visits, exhibitions, seminars and workshops to explore the possibility of joint or co-production projects.
In September 2005, China and Malaysia signed a Memorandum of Understanding on defense cooperation covering personnel exchanges and training as well as an annual security dialogue. Later that year, Malaysia and China raised their bilateral relations to a strategic partnership at a summit meeting in Kuala Lumpur. This agreement included the promotion of information exchanges on non-traditional security issues, consultations in defense and security areas, and military exchanges. Since 2005, Malaysia and China have exchanged visits by defense ministers and hosted goodwill port calls by naval vessels.
The first China-Malaysia defense and security consultation was held in Kuala Lumpur in September 2012. It was co-hosted by the Secretary General of Malaysia’s Defense Ministry and the Deputy Chief of Staff of the People’s Liberation Army. This meeting agreed to continue high-level exchanges and cooperation in training and non-traditional security issues.
China-Indonesian defense cooperation dates to April 2005, when the presidents of China and Indonesia issued a joint declaration in Jakarta on building a strategic partnership. In May 2006, the two sides inaugurated an annual defense and security dialogue. Since then China and Indonesia exchanged visits by their defense ministers and hosted goodwill port calls by naval vessels.
In November 2007, China and Indonesia signed an important defense cooperation agreement that included sharing defense technology and arms sales. It was not until 2010, however, before the two sides adopted a Plan of Action to implement defense cooperation under the strategic partnership agreement. The two sides have since conducted joint exercises between their special forces. Indonesian pilots have trained in China on its Sukhoi flight simulators, and both sides have entered into co-production arrangements of C-705 anti-ship missiles. On October 1 this year, China and Indonesia held their fifth Defense Consultative Forum since 2007.
The raising of China’s relations with Indonesia and Malaysia to comprehensive strategic partnerships signals the importance of their economic relationship and growing interdependence. The defense and security aspects of this new relationship represent more continuity than change. China’s “new security concept” was first broached in 1997. Both Indonesia and Malaysia have proceeded cautiously in developing defense ties with China. This development should be welcomed for the experience it provides China in interacting with regional armed forces. Next year, Indonesia will host a joint naval exercise involving ASEAN members and their dialogue partners.
China’s proposal of Treaty on Good Neighborliness, Friendship, and Cooperation will have to be studied carefully. The present ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation is open to all external powers who adhere to its tenets. China’s proposed treaty appears exclusivist, aimed at drawing a circle around China and Southeast Asia.