China-ASEAN Cooperation: 10-Year Review and Vision on Jointly Building the Belt and Road Initiative

Zhai Kun, Han Zhuoxi

At the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, General Secretary Xi Jinping emphasized the importance of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as China’s opening-up strategy. He made a highly accurate and creative summary of the achievements of the initiative in the last decade that “the BRI has been welcomed by the international community both as public goods and cooperation platform”. He also called for promoting cooperation on the high-quality development of the BRI. 2023 marks the decennial anniversary of the BRI, as well as the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the strategic partnership between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The 3rd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation will also be held in 2023. Over the past decade, the BRI has facilitated the upgrading of economic and trade cooperation between China and ASEAN, promoted increasing policy coordination, and enhanced strategic internal and external planning. As Southeast Asia has emerged as a crucial arena for strategic competition among nations, it is incumbent upon China to coordinate its position with ASEAN and to view China-ASEAN cooperation as the linchpin of the Belt and Road Initiative’s ongoing development.

I. The BRI helps to elevate all-encompassing China-ASEAN economic and trade cooperation.

Since the launch of the BRI in 2013, China-ASEAN strategic planning and policy coordination have continued to improve, which in turn has improved the quality of economic and trade cooperation between the two sides. Under the initiative’s framework, China-ASEAN economic and trade cooperation has gradually broken through traditional trade and investment, and developed towards a deeper level of national economic and trade strategic cooperation. The implementation of the initiative has helped deepen the China-ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

(i) The BRI promotes China-ASEAN internal and external coordination. Since the launch of the BRI, Southeast Asia has become an increasingly important region for China’s balanced regional economic development and comprehensive opening-up strategy. In November 2015, China signed the “Protocol to Amend the Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Co-operation and Certain Agreements thereunder between the People’s Republic of China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)”, officially ending the negotiations for upgrading China-ASEAN Free Trade Area (FTA). In November 2019, leaders from China and ASEAN countries jointly issued the “ASEAN-China Joint Statement on Synergising the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) 2025 and the Belt and Road Initiative”, which marked an important step for the high-quality Belt and Road cooperation and injected new impetus to the realization of comprehensive connectivity in the region. On November 22, 2021, while presiding over the commemorative summit in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the establishment of China-ASEAN Dialogue Relations, President Xi Jinping underscored the importance of crafting high-quality Belt and Road cooperation and collaborating with the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” (AOIP) put forth by ASEAN.

(ii) The BRI elevates China-ASEAN policy coordination.     

In October 2013, President Xi Jinping put forward new cooperation concepts, strategies, and mechanisms in Indonesia, notably the joint construction of the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the China-ASEAN community with a shared future during his visit in Indonesia. Following the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2017, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang both made their first foreign visits to Southeast Asian countries. By the end of 2018, they visited Southeast Asia again with the goal of improving the quality of the China-ASEAN strategic partnership and upgrading the China-ASEAN Community of Shared Future. Since 2018, the institutionalization of China-ASEAN economic cooperation under the BRI framework has been steadily advancing. For example, the annual China-ASEAN Expo and the China-ASEAN Business and Investment Summit have been held regularly, aiming to promote economic and trade exchanges between the two sides. Furthermore, policy coordination between China and Southeast Asian countries has become increasingly evident, including not only the alignment of the BRI and the “ASEAN Connectivity Master Plan 2025” at the ASEAN level, but also the alignment of the BRI and specific national development strategies, such as the “Thailand 4.0”, the Philippine’s “Build, Build, Build”, and Cambodia’s “Four Corner Strategy”. In January 2023, China and the Philippines renewed the “Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative between the Government of the People’s Republic of China and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines”. Based on the original agreement, both sides will continue to make the best of economic complementarity and strengthen economic and cultural exchanges, so as to achieve pragmatic and long-term Belt and Road cooperation.

(iii) The BRI elevates China-ASEAN economic and trade cooperation. As previously mentioned, economic and trade cooperation between China and ASEAN and its member states under the BRI economic framework has advanced beyond traditional trade and investment patterns and has progressed towards a higher level of national economic strategic cooperation. Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, China-ASEAN trade has grown against the downward trend and China has become ASEAN’s largest trading partner and vice versa. On September 1, 2022, some senior Southeast Asian officials at the 7th “Belt and Road” Summit Forum noted that the Belt and Road cooperation has benefited their economic development and significantly improved infrastructure projects. For example, the Cambodian Secretary of State of Ministry of Public Works and Transport Lim Sidenine, stated that the BRI has greatly benefited Cambodia in terms of infrastructure. Under this framework, Cambodia has built over 3,000 kilometers of roads, which has improved road congestion and contributed to boosting tourism development.

II. The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific may fortify the foundation of the BRI in Southeast Asia.

With the emergence of the Indo-Pacific strategy unveiled by the United States and other Western countries, which is constricting the space for the BRI development, Southeast Asia has become a focal point for multi-party strategic competition. In this context, the United States aims to promote its own strategic “ASEANisation adjustment” in order to curb the BRI development. Meanwhile, ASEAN has proposed the AOIP which may coordinate the strategic interests of all parties and help the BRI solidify its foundation in Southeast Asia.

(i) Southeast Asia has become a core area of cooperation of the Belt and Road Initiative. Currently, the Indo-Pacific region is widely viewed as a crucial geopolitical and economic arena for the establishment of a regional order by countries like the United States, Japan, India, Australia, Britain, France, Germany and ASEAN. The primary objective of the United States and the West’s “Indo-Pacific strategies” is to check and balance China, and many of these strategies focus on utilizing ASEAN as a means of countering the BRI. For example, the quadrilateral dialogue mechanism between the United States, Japan, India, and Australia aims to garner support from ASEAN nations and counter the BRI. Similarly, the EU’s “Global Gateway” plan prioritizes ASEAN as cooperation partner, which is viewed as a strategy limiting the development of the BRI. It is worth noting that the AOIP proposed by ASEAN in 2019 differs from these other strategies, as it does not target a specific third party, but rather aims to establish an inclusive order within the region that accommodates all parties. China’s BRI also encompasses the so-called Indo-Pacific region. President Xi Jinping pointed out that China seeks high-quality Belt and Road cooperation with ASEAN and cooperate between the Belt and Road Initiative and the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific when he chaired the Special Summit to Commemorate the 30th Anniversary of China-ASEAN Dialogue Relations. This is the first time that China has officially proposed cooperation with this outlook. It is clear that Southeast Asia is at the intersection of the foundation and interaction of the United States and the West’s “Indo-Pacific Strategies”, ASEAN’s East Asian cooperation, and China’s BRI.

 (ii) The United States and other Western countries may seek to advance the “ASEANisation adjustment” aspect of their Indo-Pacific strategy in order to constrict the space for the BRI. The Biden Administration has recognized that Southeast Asia is a critical arena of strategic competition between China and the United States, and is therefore making efforts to integrate and deploy strategic resources from the United States and the West to counter China. The BRI is particularly affected by these efforts. The strategic improvements being implemented by the Biden administration have several key characteristics: First, it emphasizes systemic advantages. For example, the United States has launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) to address the shortcomings of existing economic cooperation mechanisms in the region, primarily those of ASEAN member countries. Second, it seeks to gradually shift away from a great power mentality. The US Indo-Pacific strategy clearly states that the United States alone is insufficient and requires the support of all parties to create an environment to contain and influence China. This indicates that the United States under the Biden administration has moved away from a position of dominance towards one of seeking cooperation and support from ASEAN. Third, it places importance on the allocation of emerging means and strategic resources. The Biden administration will focus its cooperation with countries in the region on areas such as coast guard cooperation, Indo-Pacific maritime awareness, and combating illegal fishing, with the aim of controlling coastal traffic lines in Southeast Asia and limiting the development of the BRI. In terms of ASEAN integration on frontier issues such as the digital economy, supply chain, green and low carbon, the Biden administration is utilizing incremental thinking to leverage the comparative advantages of the United States to attract ASEAN and compete with the BRI.

(iii) The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific can serve as a consolidating force for coordinating the strategic interests of all parties. Among the various “Indo-Pacific strategies”, the strategic concept of the AOIP is the most widely accepted and universally consented to by all countries. The order of rules in its strategic concept mainly includes four meanings: the geographical and economic space of the “Indo-Pacific” region is defined by ASEAN; adherence to the traditional “ASEAN way” rather than legal documents or treaties; utilization of existing ASEAN norms and mechanisms such as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia and the East Asia Summit; respect for international law, such as the UN Charter, ASEAN Charter and other ASEAN-related treaties and agreements. The AOIP is a comprehensive and holistic approach that draws together existing strategic initiatives in the region. It prioritizes both strategic innovation and connectivity, promoting a win-win cooperation model and placing a strong emphasis on openness over exclusion. It focuses on development rather than security and aims to further the construction of the ASEAN Community. The goal is to increase the organization’s own strength as a strategic foothold and to promote ASEAN integration to a higher level in terms of infrastructure connectivity, economic and trade cooperation, financial stability and sustainable development. In summary, the AOIP aligns well with the BRI and serves as a key pillar for strengthening China-ASEAN cooperation under the framework of the BRI.

 III. China—ASEAN cooperation can serve as a main pillar for the Belt and Road development.

ASEAN serves as the prime geosphere for the resurgence of the Belt and Road Initiative in the post-COVID-19 era, as it serves as an overlapping, integrating, and central hub for both the “Belt and Road” and “Dual Circulation” strategic constructions. In the meantime, the official implementation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership(RCEP) offers new opportunities for China and ASEAN to jointly construct the BRI. Through collaboration on this initiative, China and ASEAN can align their efforts with the AOIP, furthering the implementation of the RCEP, shaping the regional order, and strengthening the foundation of the BRI in Southeast Asia.

(i) ASEAN becomes the prime area of the BRI’s post-COVID-19 revival. On November 11, 2022, Premier Li Keqiang stated at the 25th China-ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting that China takes ASEAN as a high priority in its neighborhood diplomacy and is ready to work with ASEAN to stay focused on development and cooperation, and build a closer China-ASEAN community with a shared future. Moreover, he highlighted the importance of continuing to pursue high-quality Belt and Road cooperation and to promote mutually beneficial cooperation between the BRI and AOIP. On one hand, the BRI has seen significant success in ASEAN. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19, China’s efforts to promote the Belt and Road development have been particularly successful in ASEAN. Since 2013, when China first proposed the BRI, it has opened up two-way markets and led to a rapid deepening of economic, trade, and investment cooperation between China and ASEAN. On the other hand, Southeast Asia is also a primary region for the implementation of China’s “dual circulation” strategy. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a growing sense of fragmentation in the global economy, and China has responded by launching the “dual circulation” strategy. Within this strategy, ASEAN is a top priority due to its role in the Belt and Road development and its geopolitical location. By combining the BRI and the “dual circulation” strategy, Southeast Asia is becoming an overlapping, integrating and central hub in China’s global strategic layout.

(ii) RCEP offers new opportunities for China—ASEAN Belt and Road cooperation. Firstly, RCEP will invigorate economic development between China and ASEAN. According to simulation results from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce’s RCEP Impact Assessment Report on the Regional Economy, ASEAN countries stand to benefit the most from the agreement at a macroeconomic level. According to the Statistical Bulletin of China’s Outward Foreign Direct Investment in 2020, China’s total investment flow to ASEAN reached US$ 16.06327 billion, accounting for 71.27% of China’s total investment flow to countries along the Belt and Road. With the implementation of RCEP, the total amount of investment flows accepted by ASEAN under the framework of the BRI is most likely to keep rising. Secondly, RCEP will help accelerate the development of China and ASEAN’s emerging industries. For example, the year 2020 was designated as the China-ASEAN Year of Digital Economy Cooperation due to the huge potential for digital economy development in ASEAN countries. As the fixed broadband penetration rate in ASEAN (Singapore excluded) generally lags behind the world average, there is large space for future investment growth in the telecom service industry in the region, which is conducive to the construction of the Digital Silk Road. Thirdly, RCEP will facilitate the integration and development of industrial and supply chains between China and ASEAN. The “zero tariff target” and the “rules of origin”under the RCEP agreement are expected to facilitate an efficient flow of trade from financing, to raw materials, processing, sales, and even production among the RCEP members. This will help to accelerate the comprehensive upgrade of China-ASEAN cooperation under the BRI.

(iii) China-ASEAN cooperation can serve as a main pillar for the Belt and Road development. After three decades of development, China and ASEAN have built a mature relationship of mutual understanding and cooperation. However, the two sides still need to further align their positions on major strategic issues and become each other’s most important supporters. Specifically, China could align its strategy with ASEAN by supporting the visions of AOIP and working to ease regional tensions while adhering to the Belt and Road development. Moreover, China and ASEAN could establish a working group to negotiate and improve the content and route of economic cooperation under the framework of the BRI, such as discussing ways to promote post-RCEP wide-area economic cooperation and coordinating relations with CPTPP. Furthermore, China and ASEAN could deepen their cooperation in blue economy and expand the cooperation results to traditional and non-traditional security fields, such as peaceful dispute resolution and maritime security, so as to promote regional stability and prosperity. Lastly, China and ASEAN could also work together to shape new inclusive regional rules, support various open and inclusive regional cooperation initiatives and avoid division of blocs or forcing ASEAN countries to take sides.

Zhai Kun is Professor of the School of International Relations and Associate Dean of the Institute of Regional and Country Studies of Peking University.
Han Zhuoxi is PhD of Leiden University.