Despite the fact that several Southeast Asian countries are locked in ongoing territorial rows with China, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Beijing are looking to boost cooperation as they gear up to mark the 25th anniversary of China-ASEAN dialogue relations this year.
The ASEAN-China Centre in Beijing was opened in 2011 to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of ASEAN and China Dialogue Relations. It is an inter-governmental organisation co-established by the governments of the 10 ASEAN member states and China – and the aim is to promote cooperation between ASEAN and China in areas such as trade, investment, education and tourism.
“The ASEAN-China Centre has done a tremendous job in informing the Chinese people about ASEAN and vice-versa,” said Lada Phumas, ASEAN-China Centre.
Since 2009, China has become ASEAN’s largest trading partner, while ASEAN is China’s third largest trading partner. Trade between the two increased 8.2 per cent to US$480 billion in 2014 and officials see room for further growth in areas such as maritime cooperation.
Most of the ASEAN member states lie along China’s proposed 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, which aims to connect Asia to Africa, and Beijing has invited them to be part of this network.
“We can cooperate on marine research, ecological protection, disaster relief and prevention, as well as on law enforcement, rescue efforts and also people-to-people cultural exchanges,” said Chen Yue, State Oceanic Administration.
There is however, the thorny issue of the South China Sea territorial disputes. China and several ASEAN nations including the Philippines and Vietnam have laid claims to parts of the South China Sea, through which around US$5 trillion worth of trade passes each year.
No resolution is in sight for the moment as ASEAN remains divided on how to deal with China, a major trading partner. And China, on its part, strongly holds that disputes in the South China Sea should be settled between parties concerned through negotiations
“The South China Sea issue is not a China-ASEAN issue,” said Bai Tian, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “It should not define China-ASEAN relations. As long as we have enough goodwill, sincerity and political wisdom, we can put the South China Sea issue in its proper place to maintain the peace and stability in the South China Sea region.”
China and ASEAN recently sealed a deal to upgrade their Free Trade Area Agreement, with the aim of scaling up two-way trade to US$1 trillion by 2020.