ASEAN Centrality in Regional Cooperation: Status Quo and Challenges

China International Studies (English) - - Contents - Zhou Shixin

The ASEAN centrality is the result of long-term interaction between ASEAN and other countries in East Asian cooperation and other countries’ recognition of ASEAN’S role. China supports ASEAN’S central role and takes into account its interests and concerns in bilateral relations.

Each country seeks for advantage in its relations with other countries. On this basis, looking at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the cooperation among its members, and the development of its relatively friendly relations with other countries, including the communication platforms, agendas and discussion topics, provides a means of looking at the evolution and prospects for cooperation in East Asia. Other countries’ willingness to cooperate with, or even woo,1 ASEAN seems to decide ASEAN’S position in the framework of East Asian cooperation. ASEAN regards maintaining its solidarity, neutrality, centrality and leadership status as its strategic objectives in handling internal and external policies,2 through which it hopes to bring strategic benefits to its members and contribute to regional peace, stability, security and prosperity. Defining and interpreting the ASEAN centrality3 and the relationship between ASEAN and other countries, especially China, is therefore of significance to understanding ASEAN’S role in bilateral relations and multilateral platforms.

ASEAN Centrality

The ASEAN centrality was not inherent in its inception, but is a result of its own development and participation in the East Asian regional cooperation. The main reasons for ASEAN to seek centrality in East Asian cooperation are as follows: First, from the perspective of ASEAN itself, ASEAN has grown from the original five founding members to 10 members, and in the process its overall strength has been greatly enhanced. Although the increase in the number of member countries makes it difficult to reach a consensus on sensitive issues and a binding agreement is less likely to happen, ASEAN has become the most important force in Southeast Asia as a whole. With their integration into ASEAN, many countries have made progress which otherwise could not have been made. Strong cooperative bonds have formed among the members. Second, from the perspective of the relations between ASEAN and its dialogue partners, ASEAN’S dialogue partners have recognized many of the important political documents they have reached with ASEAN and have admitted ASEAN’S basic principles for handling international relations through the formal signing and ratification of relevant documents. Even countries such as the United States and Russia have recognized the ASEAN approach, through the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia and participation in the East Asia Summit, marking the real recognition of ASEAN centrality in East Asia and even the Asiapacific region.4 Third, both the major countries in East Asia such as China, Japan and Korea, and the global powers and neighboring countries participating in East Asian cooperation such as the US, Russia, India and Australia, encounter a lot of issues when dealing with each other’s interests in East Asia, as they are often faced with the entanglements between history and reality, power and status, as well as affection and interests. It is difficult to form an autonomous or voluntary regional

cooperation framework. Because of this, ASEAN, with its relatively stable relations with the major powers, is the most likely partner for cooperation, making it the most popular entity in the region. Fourth, from a global perspective, ASEAN has established close links with other international and regional organizations such as the United Nations, and has been widely involved in the G20’s agenda, becoming an important participant in global issues. In the process of cooperation with other countries, ASEAN’S policy stance and principles are extended and the status and role of ASEAN in the international community enhanced.5

ASEAN’S first mention of the concept of “centrality” was made in the Cebu Declaration on the Acceleration of the Establishment of an ASEAN Community by 2015, signed at the 12th ASEAN Summit in January 2007,6 and the Chairperson’s Statement of the 12th ASEAN Summit.7 The concept’s formal proposal is in the Paragraph 15, Article 1 of the ASEAN Charter, which was adopted at the 13th ASEAN Summit in November 2007: “To maintain the centrality and proactive role of ASEAN as the primary driving force in its relations and cooperation with its external partners in a regional architecture that is open, transparent and inclusive.”8 The 43rd ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in 2010 further elaborated on the central role of ASEAN in the regional structure, calling for further efforts to accelerate the progress of ASEAN integration and community building, actively deepening ASEAN’S external relations, and strengthening its role as the main driving force in the existing regional cooperation. ASEAN countries believe that the regional coordination and cooperation framework should be inclusive, able to maintain the regional dynamic balance and promote regional peace, stability and prosperity. To this end, ASEAN decided, in consultation with non-

ASEAN participants at the East Asia Summit, to extend an official invitation to the United States and Russia to attend the East Asia Summit from 2011.9

In recent years, all the ASEAN summit chairman’s statements have referred to the centrality of ASEAN, and some have specifically elaborated on that and updated the content according to change of regional situation. For example, the Chairman’s Statement of the 17th ASEAN Summit in 2010 proposed safeguarding the ASEAN centrality in two ways: prioritizing the advancement of ASEAN integration and strengthening ASEAN’S external relations. ASEAN would promote regional cooperation through a number of mutually supportive regional mechanisms and strengthen the impetus for establishing the ASEAN Community. The Chairman’s Statement of the 25th ASEAN Summit in 2014 proposed maintaining the ASEAN centrality while cooperating more with countries outside the region, so as to find the optimal way to effectively deal with emerging challenges and regional geo-economic and geo-political changes, and promote regional peace, stability, security and prosperity. ASEAN has also promoted the implementation of the ASEAN Charter and other treaties or declarations, such as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, the Southeast Asian Nuclear-weapon-free Zone Treaty, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the Declaration of Principles of Reciprocity of East Asia Summit, all of which have further developed a regional framework based on rules and norms.10 The Chairman’s Statement at the 27th ASEAN Summit in 2015 specifically mentioned the revised ASEAN Work Plan on Maintaining and Enhancing ASEAN Centrality, which was passed in a special ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in September 2015.11 It emphasized further developing

a rule-based framework to maintain and strengthen regional peace, stability, security and prosperity.12 In 2016, the Chairman’s Statements of the 28th and 29th ASEAN Summits continued with the main contents of previous summits, with particular emphasis on the central role of ASEAN in the regional architecture.13

Status Quo and Features of ASEAN Centrality

From the perspective of regional cooperation framework, the centrality of ASEAN is mainly reflected in the cooperation and dialogue platforms it provides for regional countries.14 In addition to environment, energy, public health, tourism, food security, education and other social and cultural issues, ASEAN’S centrality is manifested mainly in security and economic cooperation.

From the security perspective, the final documents adopted by the ASEAN Summit, the “ASEAN+1” Summit, the “ASEAN+3” Summit and the East Asia Summit are comprehensive. They have strong political orientations and have become the highest-level mechanisms in regional cooperation. The sequence of these meetings reveals that the ASEAN member states’ summit not only coordinates their own issues of common concern, but also sets the tone of major issues and agendas for the following summits. Second, the series of East Asian Foreign Ministers’ Meetings are also very important. The most notable one is the ASEAN Regional Forum, which is attended by 27 foreign ministers from 27 countries or regions. Merely viewed from the fact that it discusses international and regional security issues, it can be regarded as an enlarged version of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, and it is also the largest ASEAN-LED forum. The

ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting is usually held before other meetings and it will issue a joint communiqué to lay the policy tone for the series of East Asian Foreign Ministers’ Meetings. As the meeting intervals are close, the content of the document is usually prepared before the meeting, only making some necessary adjustments on wording. As a result, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting did not issue a joint statement in 2012, while the ASEAN Regional Forum published documents showing only that the Philippine Foreign Minister was seeking to add new content to the already agreed joint communiqué. Third, the frequency of the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus has shifted from being held once every three years to once every two years, but compared to the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting which is held annually, it still has a long way to go in terms of frequency, discussion content and action plan, etc. Fourth, among other types of institutional forums to discuss regional security issues held by ASEAN countries, the most typical should be the Asia-pacific Roundtable (APR) organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies of Malaysia and the Jakarta International Defense Dialogue (JIDD) under Indonesia’s Defense Ministry. Both forums have a strong Track 1.5 nature. In contrast, the Singapore Shangri-la Dialogue (SLD), which has been held many times and established greater influence, does not manifest the centrality of ASEAN or ASEAN countries.

From the perspective of economic cooperation, various forms of “ASEAN+N” FTAS have been formed, including five existing “ASEAN+1” FTAS and an “ASEAN+3” FTA, while the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is still under negotiation. Although both the RCEP and the Comprehensive Economic Partnership of East Asia (CEPEA) are both “ASEAN+6” in form, they are substantively different with different outcomes. CEPEA was proposed by Japan in 2005, but it failed to enter the negotiation process because it does not reflect ASEAN’S voice. The RCEP,15 which reflects the centrality of ASEAN, has been promoted instead, and the negotiations

15 “Guiding Principles and Objectives for Negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership,” August 2012, http://dfat.gov.au/trade/agreements/rcep/documents/guiding-principles-rcep.pdf.

are expected to be completed in the near future. Second, from the ASEAN currency swap mechanism, to the Chiang Mai Initiative, and then the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization, there has been a broadening of ASEAN’S multilateral currency swap arrangements to include more parties. At present, these three currency swap mechanisms exist simultaneously. In terms of the institutional arrangements for the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization, while the proportion of ASEAN countries in the amount of foreign exchange capital is small, the ratio of their currency swap quotas is very large, so that more real benefits can be obtained, providing them with institutional safeguards against international financial risks and channels to seek investment for economic development. Third, the APEC organizational principles and norms are there. This is mainly reflected in the Kuching Consensus reached in February 1990 by some ASEAN member countries which were also founding members of APEC. The Kuching Consensus stresses that APEC cannot dilute the status and role of ASEAN16 and that the ASEAN concept of regional economic cooperation should be applied to APEC. Although three member states of ASEAN have yet to join APEC, the ASEAN approach has been embedded in APEC’S core ideology. Fourth, ASEAN and other regional organizations in other parts of the world, such as the European Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), are negotiating FTAS. Although it is difficult to ensure its centrality in the negotiations, ASEAN is sticking to its bottom line, and striving to make the final text of the agreement in favor of the interests of ASEAN countries.

Generally speaking, ASEAN has gained centrality in regional cooperation mainly through the following ways: First, it adopts a relatively detached position and tries not to participate in the competition among big powers. Instead of using the strategy of balancing big powers, it detaches itself to reduce the effects of power rivalry on it. ASEAN chooses this strategy, considering its limited overall strengths and access to public resources, difficulty in internal coordination and lack of efficiency. If ASEAN is at a disadvantage in direct

16 Lu Jianren, APEC and China,

Beijing: Economy and Management Publishing House, 1997, p.111.

competition with major powers, it is likely to be forced to choose a side. Second, it adheres to the unique ASEAN approach. This makes it impossible for ASEAN to use its centrality to subject dialogue partners to its willingness. In the meantime, dialogue partners would find it difficult to take advantage of ASEAN to reach documents favorable to them by coercing certain ASEAN member countries.17 Third, ASEAN is characterized by the weak leadership mode based on common ground. ASEAN does not seek to establish a collective hegemony, and it develops policies and norms usually in accordance with dialogue partners. All the efforts are made to create a cooperation agenda. Fourth, ASEAN adheres to the principle of non-mandatory and voluntary implementation. There is no obligation for ASEAN members to implement the resolutions that have been adopted, nor is there any mandatory power to force them to do so. The ASEAN members usually urge one another to fulfill their commitments to the fullest extent, and carry out actions when conditions are ripe.

ASEAN’S regional centrality mainly has the following characteristics: First, ASEAN has invariably stressed the need to maintain its unity and sought to consolidate its central position. In recent years, ASEAN has always stressed the building of internal cohesion, worried that the efficiency of setting and coordinating its agenda will be discounted if internal divisions prevail and thus put ASEAN at a disadvantage when seeking to benefit from cooperation with dialogue partners. Second, ASEAN adheres to a relatively neutral policy in its foreign relations and avoids involvement in unnecessary disputes. ASEAN’S policy of neutrality is not only reflected within the ASEAN member countries, but also in the relations between member countries and other countries. This is a prerequisite for ASEAN to

ASEAN’S policy of neutrality, which is not only reflected within member countries but also between member countries and other countries, is a prerequisite for its maintenance of centrality.

17 Wei Ling, “East Asian Regionalization: Challenges and Prospects,” Foreign Affairs Review, Issue 6, 2010, p.34.

be able to maintain its central position. Once ASEAN has chosen to take sides in any international or regional affair or found itself in conflict with other countries, it will have difficulty in securing its central position in these conflicts. Third, ASEAN provides the normative platform for the dialogue partners to participate in policy coordination, which helps to form the overall framework of regional cooperation. ASEAN-LED meetings are basically held in ASEAN countries. Fourth, the degree of recognition and cooperation of ASEAN dialogue partners determines the quality and stability of ASEAN’S centrality. In other words, ASEAN’S centrality is often not defined by itself, but by its relationships with its dialogue partners. If the dialogue partners do not recognize, do not cooperate or even act against the role of ASEAN in regional cooperation, it means that the centrality of ASEAN has not been acknowledged, or at least there is a problem with it.

Challenges Facing ASEAN Centrality

The ASEAN centrality in regional cooperation is not given. Some challenges and uncertainties are inevitable in the course of ASEAN’S development.

First, the building of the ASEAN Community is still flawed. If ASEAN’S centrality is to be widely recognized by the countries in the region, the realization of the ASEAN Community is essential.18 Whether or not ASEAN will be strengthened by the building of the East Asian Economic Community depends on if ASEAN has completed its own economic integration before the East Asian Economic Community is established.19 At present, although ASEAN announced that it had completed building the ASEAN Community by the end of 2015, the Community is mainly reflected in the economic field, revealing the regional preference of integration. Even so, the messages released from ASEAN are inconsistent from the voice from its member

countries. The Community appears to remain a weak framework and needs to be reinforced by its members. Whether ASEAN can implement all its plans for the Community is a question that remains to be answered. ASEAN has many internal cohesion problems on security because of the differences in the interests of the member states, which limits ASEAN’S ability and willingness to give full play to its central position in regional cooperation.20

Second, ASEAN has not solved the core problem of internal leadership. Since its establishment, ASEAN has been emphasizing the independence of all member states, and has maintained and safeguarded this through many political documents such as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, the Bali Consensus Declaration and the ASEAN Charter. This has made it difficult for ASEAN to have a member that can assume a leadership role. For a long time, Indonesia was considered the “natural leader,” and it played an active role in promoting the institutional development of ASEAN. However, after the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, with the collapse of the Muhammad Suharto regime, Indonesia gradually embarked on a stable democratization path, and its leadership and commitment to ASEAN has not been as great as before. Despite the fact that with its economic development, Indonesia has been more active in the process of ASEAN integration in recent years, its efforts are limited to promoting cooperation with the other members and it has not shown willingness to lead ASEAN. The absence of a core leader makes it difficult for ASEAN to coordinate its internal affairs. In the event of differences of opinion among member states or between member states and NON-ASEAN countries, reaching a consensus has proved very difficult.

Third, ASEAN’S ability to coordinate with its dialogue partners is limited. The centrality of ASEAN only means that ASEAN has established a framework for cooperation with the “ASEAN+N” model, provided a venue, set the agenda and thus become a very important node in the regional

cooperation network.21 However, this does not mean that the ASEAN node overrides other nodes, nor does it mean that ASEAN members can force their dialogue partners to accept their own policy claims in the name of the collective. ASEAN’S centrality is not only affected by the over-emphasis of sovereignty by member states,22 but also by its dialogue partners. To turn “a center of goodwill” into “a center of practical significance,” ASEAN needs to be more proactive in managing increasingly important but diversified areas.23 From the perspective of the regional cooperation framework, ASEAN’S central position is not the result of its self-planned orientation, but rather its role in regional cooperation is in line with the changes in the international political and economic environment24 and meets the needs of its dialogue partners’ foreign policies. If ASEAN wants to maintain its centrality in the regional cooperation framework, it needs to stay focused when major powers compete in the region.25 As an intergovernmental organization, ASEAN can do nothing about the unilateral action by its members and, of course, cannot interfere with the policies of its dialogue partners.

Finally, ASEAN’S performance in promoting regional cooperation remains to be improved. If ASEAN wishes to continue to strengthen its central role in regional cooperation mechanisms, it needs to go beyond its role merely as a “flashy convener and organizer of activities”26 and effectively promote its own power and capacity to lead the East Asian Community.27 The ASEAN Regional Forum achieved great success at the beginning of

its establishment but now seems to have lost its momentum and is often regarded as a “talk shop” that cannot deal with regional security issues.28 In addition, viewed from the evolution of the “ASEAN+N” model, problems exist in ASEAN that hinder it from promoting cooperation in East Asia. For example, in view of the fact that China, Japan and Korea’s combined economic aggregate is far more than that of the ASEAN countries, ASEAN has been reluctant to substantially promote the “ASEAN+3” FTA negotiations, for fear that it will become a “3+ASEAN” FTA, which will marginalize the role of ASEAN. Although China, Japan and Korea have made considerable efforts to try to persuade ASEAN countries, the results have been unsatisfying. After the United States promoted the negotiations on the Trans-pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), the ASEAN members have realized that if they fail to maintain their central role in the regional cooperation mechanism, some members would eventually join the TPP, threatening the status of ASEAN in East Asian economic cooperation.29

As ASEAN’S former secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan put it, ASEAN needs to take active policy measures to win centrality and leadership. This centrality has both external and internal aspects: First, it must be built on the inherent strength of the ASEAN Community. It calls for the ASEAN member states to remain united as a group with a clear common purpose, increase the sense of coordination and participation, and actively support the role of the ASEAN Secretariat. Second, it will depend on ASEAN’S continued engagement with the outside world and the content of its

ASEAN’S central position is not the result of its self-planned orientation, but rather its role in regional cooperation is in line with the changes in the international political and economic environment and meets the needs of its dialogue partners’ foreign policies.

contacts.30 To maintain its centrality, ASEAN must promote a positive attitude toward results-oriented regional cooperation.31 US former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have stressed that the United States would maintain its leadership in the Asia-pacific region. This is, in fact, a warning to ASEAN. ASEAN countries are very worried about their central role in regional cooperation. For their own interests, great powers are surely unwilling to accept the centrality of ASEAN unconditionally. They may not always regard ASEAN as a priority for foreign cooperation.32 Whether ASEAN can shape the behavior, interests and identities of a big power and build its centrality in the Asia-pacific region depends on its strength, ability and the institutional norms proposed.

China’s Cooperation with ASEAN and Its Implications

China has always attached great importance to its cooperative relations with ASEAN, firmly taken ASEAN countries as a priority for its neighborhood diplomacy, tirelessly deepened its strategic partnership with ASEAN, and unswervingly joined hands with ASEAN to safeguard regional peace and stability.33 Chinese leaders have always emphasized “upholding the position the ASEAN leadership, highlighting the theme of development, mutual benefit and a win-win situation and continuing to promote the integration of East Asia with 10+3 as the main channel.”34 China has supported ASEAN’S leading position in East Asian cooperation, and carried out pragmatic cooperation with the ASEAN countries in various fields to deepen the

integration of interests and create a closer CHINA-ASEAN Community of shared destiny.35 China has made it clear that it “supports the centrality of ASEAN in the evolving regional architecture.”36

China attaches great importance to the centrality of ASEAN for many reasons: First, China and most ASEAN member countries have maintained a very close relationship. Although China and some countries have problems left over from history, they have not risen to the bilateral level of China and ASEAN as a whole, nor have they had any substantial impact on the overall relationship between China and ASEAN. So far, China has established comprehensive strategic partnerships of cooperation with Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia, established a comprehensive strategic partnership with Malaysia, and established a strategic cooperation relationship with the other ASEAN members. All this has helped to maintain the integrity of strategic partnership between China and ASEAN, which is bound to peace and prosperity. At present, ASEAN has become China’s third largest trading partner; and China has become ASEAN’S largest trading partner. The Chinese currency has become the currency swap priority for some ASEAN countries. Since 2010 when the CHINA-ASEAN FTA was implemented, the trade and economic ties and interdependence between the two sides have shown great improvement.

Second, China accepts ASEAN’S central role in regional cooperation. In essence, in view of the fact that ASEAN members are small and mediumsized countries, and the level of economic development is different, with the vast majority still in developing, the dominance of ASEAN’S role in regional

Whether ASEAN can shape the behavior, interests and identities of a big power and build its centrality in the Asiapacific region depends on its strength, ability and the institutional norms proposed.

cooperation is not strong. In terms of both agenda setting and agenda selection, ASEAN appears to be moderate and steady, which accommodates the limitations of the member states while still allowing them to benefit. It also takes into account the comfort and interests of dialogue partners. ASEAN does not show a strong tendency to dominate regional cooperation. ASEAN’S dialogue partners, including China, are generally tolerant of its weak leadership, and understand its conservative approach to many issues. Specifically, the bottom line of FTA principles, coverage and standards in the RCEP negotiations are determined by ASEAN. While the dialogue partners may also have reservations on certain clauses, the ASEAN member countries bear major responsibility for the sluggishness of RCEP negotiations.

Third, ASEAN helps promote the synergy between China and the United States, Japan, India and other large countries. As interaction and cooperation between China and ASEAN increases, other major powers have raised concerns over China’s rising influence and strategic intent, fearing that China will seek to establish its own sphere of influence in Southeast Asia. Coupled with historical hatred, there have always been some barriers between these countries and China in promoting cooperation, and this poses a challenge to starting the process of self-initiated economic integration. For example, the cooperation between China, Japan and Korea began from the beginning of their cooperation with ASEAN. The “ASEAN+3” mechanism was established by China, Japan, Korea and ASEAN, and the “ASEAN+3” Leaders Breakfast Meeting was formed based on this. Finally, in 2008, the summit mechanism of China, Japan and Korea was formed, but it hasn’t gone well. But the “ASEAN+3” cooperation mechanism is still in existence, which fully demonstrates the importance of ASEAN as the center of East Asian cooperation. From the perspective of process, if there is no ASEAN centrality, agreement on the RCEP is out of the question, and the cooperation between China and ASEAN’S other dialogue partners would also lose its essential

If there is no ASEAN centrality, agreement on the RCEP is out of the question, and the cooperation between China and ASEAN’S other dialogue partners would also lose its essential adhesion.

adhesion.

Finally, a number of ASEAN mechanisms provide institutional guarantees for strengthening cooperation between China and ASEAN member states and promoting regional peace and prosperity. The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia in 1976 laid down the basic principles governing the relations among the ASEAN member states, and is also an important foundation for the formation of the ASEAN approach. China signed the Treaty in 2003, which not only embodies China’s respect and recognition of ASEAN’S position and role in the regional multilateral cooperation mechanism, but also reflects the further consolidation of political and legal foundations of bilateral relations and also mutual political trust. In addition, this shows China’s strong willingness to use ASEAN norms to deal with its relations with ASEAN members. ASEAN’S highly open and inclusive cooperation mechanism has provided China and ASEAN, and its member states, with a sustained and strong driving force, and this is also the reason why China and other countries are willing to participate in the ASEAN-LED regional multilateral security cooperation mechanism, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, series of Foreign Ministers’ Meetings and leadership summits. ASEAN’S “non-discrimination principle” in dealing with dialogue partners is also the root cause of ASEAN’S own development, expansion and being respected by the international community. ASEAN provides institutional conditions for its centrality in regional cooperation, and China and ASEAN’S other dialogue partners have taken practical actions to support ASEAN’S centrality. This mutually beneficial and win-win cooperation pattern not only conforms to the strategies of all parties, but also contributes to the East Asian countries’ efforts to overcome the negative effects of the Asian financial crisis and the international economic crisis and promote East Asia as the most dynamic region in global economic development.

Conclusion

The ASEAN centrality in East Asian cooperation is defined by ASEAN itself.

It is the result of long-term interaction between ASEAN and other countries in East Asian cooperation and the result of other countries’ recognition of ASEAN’S role in this process. ASEAN cannot underestimate or overestimate its role. It needs to stand by principles which are constructive to involve other countries in its platform to discuss regional cooperation. It needs to bring benefits to its members while at the same time accommodating other countries. Fundamentally, while as a group ASEAN seems to be more concerned with the expectation that it will increase its status, image and credibility in international and regional systems, its member states are most concerned about how much tangible benefit they can achieve in regional cooperation, and how this will help them achieve modernization, meet the goal of poverty alleviation and enhance the strength and ability to deal with various risks. This is particularly evident from the increasingly pragmatic policy choices of ASEAN countries in dealing with other countries.

China’s support for the centrality of ASEAN runs through the development of CHINA-ASEAN relations.37 When ASEAN expanded the “ASEAN+3” FTA negotiations, it demonstrated both its ability and willingness to lead the regional cooperation process and its worry that China’s advantages in the existing frameworks are too great and that new negotiating members can dilute China’s influence and China would play a more general role in the larger framework of FTA. In this regard, China has taken into account the concerns of ASEAN, eventually accepted the ASEAN’S policy stance, and consulted with ASEAN countries in specific negotiations. Although China has proposed to upgrade the CHINA-ASEAN Free Trade Area, it is more about equal engagement than China’s dominance in FTA negotiations. China will not force ASEAN to accept its own policy propositions, and it will not unconditionally accept the ASEAN’S policies. Instead, it seeks to address issues through friendly consultations.

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