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Upgrade of relations with Asean by China essential for stability

November 23, 2021 GMT

A stable external environment is important to China’s development in the next decade or two. Management of the relationship with the United States is central to that imperative.

An example is to be found in the special summit to mark 30 years since Beijing became one of Asean’s dialogue partners. China has chosen the anniversary to announce a major upgrade of those ties to the higher diplomatic level of comprehensive strategic partnership.

The summit between presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden may have reduced tensions, but China still faces many years of rivalry with the US. Europe, without Angela Merkel as German chancellor, is likely to lean towards the US.

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The best way for China to ensure a stable external environment and resist pressure from the West is to consolidate relations with the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

US projection of military power in the region from so far away has declined in comparison with China’s growing military strength. Without regional support, however tough the anti-China rhetoric from the most hawkish circles in America, the US would find it difficult to threaten China.

Not only is it important for China to secure the support of Asean countries, but the summit comes during a pivotal period in Southeast Asia’s affairs. The Philippines faces an election soon for a new president to succeed Rodrigo Duterte, amid relations fraught over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

It is easy to see tensions flaring up seriously.

Beijing needs to reassure Asean countries about its long-term strategic purposes so it can develop stable relations with their leaders. Regional countries are now more like supply chain partners than rivals.

China needs the market of 600 million people. Asean countries also need the market, along with capital and technological support. Economically this sounds like the perfect partnership.

It is against this backdrop that China has upgraded relations. But hurdles and uncertainties remain in South China Sea territorial issues.

To what extent Beijing is willing to compromise or negotiate has become a sensitive factor. Most Asean countries do not want to choose sides and Foreign Minister Wang Yi has reiterated they should not have to do so.

How to reassure them about China’s strategic intentions is another test. Xi, as special summit host, has reassured Asean leaders China does not seek “hegemony”.

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If China and Asean upgrade their overall strategic relations it will promote integration and more frequent people exchanges. This would enable Asean countries to gain more insight into China, which would be positive for the stability and prosperity of the region.

In the long run it could also prevent conflict both between Asean and China and between China and the US.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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