Working Together for a Closer China-ASEAN Community With a Shared Future

Nong Rong
This year marks the 10th anniversary of building a closer China-ASEAN community with a shared future, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the principle of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness in neighborhood diplomacy put forward by President Xi Jinping. Over the past 10 years, China has, as always, taken ASEAN as a priority in its neighborhood diplomacy. Thanks to the strategic guidance and personal commitment of President Xi Jinping and leaders of ASEAN countries, China and ASEAN have embarked on a broad path of good-neighborliness and win-win cooperation with a stronger sense of a community with a shared future. Moving forward with a strong momentum, China-ASEAN relations are now brimming with new vigor and vitality.
The development visions and pathways have become more distinct. Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia have reached common understandings with China on building a community with a shared future. Steady progress has been made in building a community with a shared future of Lancang-Mekong countries. All the 10 ASEAN countries have joined the Global Development Initiative (GDI), and have given extensive support and positive response to the Global Security Initiative (GSI) and the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI). In 2021, on the 30th anniversary of our dialogue relations, China and ASEAN announced the decision to establish a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. President Xi Jinping proposed to build a peaceful, safe and secure, prosperous, beautiful and amicable home together, making new solid strides toward a community with a shared future.
Strategic mutual trust has further enhanced. Twenty years ago, China became the first Dialogue Partner to join the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, which was followed by many “firsts” in political, economic, trade, people-to-people and cultural spheres. An important foundation has thus been laid for growing China-ASEAN relations. Today, China and ASEAN enjoy close high-level interactions, deepening strategic mutual trust, a variety of mechanisms for policy dialogue and cooperation covering departments and institutions in nearly 50 fields. There has been steady progress in traditional security cooperation and remarkable results in non-traditional security cooperation. In the fight against COVID-19, the two sides helped each other tide over difficulties together. China and ASEAN have fully and effectively implemented the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), made steady headway in the consultation for a code of conduct in the South China Sea (COC), gradually deepened maritime cooperation, and maintained overall peace and stability in the South China Sea.
The bonds of connectivity have grown closer. All the 10 ASEAN countries have signed cooperation documents with China on fostering synergy with the BRI. The China-Laos railway has far exceeded expectations in terms of both passenger and freight transport. The Jakarta-Bandung high speed railway started operation by high standards and with high quality. Malaysia’s East Coast Rail Link has been progressing smoothly. The construction of the China-Thailand railway is advancing steadily. In 2022, China’s rail-sea intermodal trains made 2,900 trips along the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor, up by 35 percent year on year. Train services on the rail-sea transit route covered 393 ports in 119 countries and regions. Silage corns from Myanmar, fresh pineapples from Indonesia, fresh durian from the Philippines and jackfruit from Malaysia officially gained market access to China. More high-quality agricultural products from neighboring countries are making their way to ordinary Chinese households. Solid progress has been made in Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) and China-BIMP-EAGA cooperation. Interconnected regional development is gradually taking shape, driven by China-ASEAN cooperation with LMC and China-BIMP-EAGA cooperation as its wings and parallel progress in Lancang-Mekong and maritime collaboration.
Economic cooperation has enjoyed more stable growth. Over the past 10 years, trade between China and ASEAN has more than doubled from USD 443.61 billion in 2013 to USD 975.34 billion in 2022. Two-way investment has surged more than three times from USD 114.78 billion to over USD 380 billion. China has been ASEAN’s biggest trading partner for 14 consecutive years, and the two sides have been each other’s largest trading partner for three years running. ASEAN is China’s third largest source of foreign investment and one of the fastest-growing destinations of Chinese investment. The two sides worked together for the entry into force in 2022 of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) , the world’s largest free trade agreement, injecting strong impetus into regional development. The China-ASEAN Expo, marking its 20th anniversary this year, has become a flagship platform for promoting high-level interactions and economic and trade cooperation in the region.
Friendly people-to-people exchanges have grown more vigorous. China-ASEAN relations are deeply rooted in the close people-to-people bonds. Before the pandemic, China was ASEAN’s largest source of tourists. In 2019, there were more than 65 million two-way trips (including those of border residents) and about 4,500 flights between the two sides every week. China and ASEAN have sent more than 200,000 students to each other’s schools and established 225 pairs of sister cities. There were 38 Confucius Institutes in ASEAN, and the official languages of all the 10 ASEAN countries were taught in Chinese universities. The two sides are now speeding up flight resumption, bringing new opportunities to people-to-people exchanges. Signature programs including the China-ASEAN Education Cooperation Week, the ASEAN-China Young Leaders Scholarship, the China-ASEAN Youth Campus, media interviews, the “Bridge of the Future” China-ASEAN Young Leaders Training Campus, the Big Banyan Tree—China-ASEAN Youth Language Connectivity Program and the China-ASEAN Cultural Forum enjoy great popularity.
International and regional cooperation have been further strengthened. The rapid growth of China-ASEAN relations has given a strong boost to regional integration in East Asia. Over the years, China and ASEAN have supported and coordinated with each other for the development of and synergy among such mechanisms as ASEAN Plus China, Japan and ROK, the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum. The two sides have thus enabled regional cooperation with unique features of East Asia and jointly fostered such cooperation principles as ASEAN centrality, consensus building, and accommodating the comfort levels of all parties, which fit the realities of the region. Last year, China and ASEAN countries successfully hosted the BRICS Summit, ASEAN Summit and related Summits, the G20 Leaders’ Summit and the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting. Together, we have ushered in the “Asian moment” of global governance.
Changes of the world, of our times, and of historical significance are unfolding like never before. The world is nowhere near peaceful amidst all these changes. The Cold War mentality is resurfacing; hegemonism and unilateralism are running rampant; major-country competition and bloc confrontation are intensifying; and security challenges, both traditional and non-traditional, are complex and interwoven. Risks and challenges facing Asia are mounting, with unstable and unpredictable factors on the rise.
In the meantime, one must be able to see beyond the profound transformation and turbulence of the world and recognize the fact that East Asia has remained generally stable; peace, development and win-win cooperation represent the common aspirations and prevailing trends of countries in the region; and dialogue and consultation remain the main policy direction of regional countries for addressing tensions and differences. Against the backdrop of growing challenges in global governance and a complex and evolving development environment, East Asian countries have become a pacesetter in global governance by embracing the governance model of planning together, building together and benefiting together. Regional cooperation mechanisms and platforms such as East Asia cooperation have become increasingly mature. In the face of multiple challenges to regional economic recovery and development, growing backlash against globalization and protectionism, East Asia has firmly upheld open regionalism and remained the most dynamic and promising region in the world as well as the main engine of global growth.
Today, the world’s center of gravity is shifting toward Asia, and East Asia has become a focus of global attention. Continued stability and development of East Asia is not only the common aspiration of countries in the region, but will also inject impetus into global recovery and revitalization. This year marks the beginning of the full implementation of the guiding principles laid out at the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). China is marching with confidence toward the goal of building a great modern socialist country in all respects and advancing rejuvenation of the Chinese nation on all fronts through a Chinese path to modernization. Committed to building itself into an epicentrum of growth, ASEAN is working vigorously on its Vision 2045 and making thoughtful plans and all-out efforts for steady progress in building the three pillars of the ASEAN Community, namely the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC), the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC).
China and ASEAN countries are good neighbors, good friends and good partners connected by mountains and rivers. Not long ago, Premier Li Qiang attended the leaders’ meetings on East Asia cooperation, the 20th China-ASEAN Expo and other important events. This is the first time the premier of the new Chinese government attended these events. The fruitful results achieved speak volumes about China’s strong desire to grow relations with ASEAN.
History and reality have shown time and again that China-ASEAN relations are an important propeller for peace, stability and development in East Asia. The better China-ASEAN relations are, the brighter the prospects for East Asia. Standing at a new historical starting point, China will continue to uphold the principle of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness in its neighborhood diplomacy and commit itself to developing good-neighborly, friendly and cooperative relations with ASEAN. Going forward, China will continue working with ASEAN in the following priority areas:
First, enhancing strategic mutual trust and becoming a pacesetter in building a community with a shared future. General Secretary Xi Jinping stressed the need to link the Chinese Dream to the aspirations of people in neighboring countries for a better life and to the development prospects of the region, so that the sense of a community with a shared future will take root in neighboring countries. The establishment of the China-ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and a common home the two sides will build are important good practices for building a China-ASEAN community with a shared future. The two sides need to build on the momentum, keep deepening strategic mutual trust, actively implement the existing consensus, strengthen integrated development, and further mutually beneficial cooperation. Such efforts will deepen and substantiate the building of the China-ASEAN community with a shared future, and create a more favorable strategic environment for our respective development and long-term peace and prosperity in the region.
Second, promoting innovation-driven growth and becoming an exemplar of high-quality Belt and Road cooperation. It is important to fully leverage the opportunities of the Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation to boost openness, inclusiveness and common development. Active efforts should be made to promote mutually beneficial cooperation between the BRI and the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) to bring about an early harvest as soon as possible. It is important to complete negotiations on the  China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) 3.0 as scheduled, deliver outcomes in key areas such as digital economy, green economy and supply chain connectivity, improve the quality and level of trade and investment cooperation, and achieve deeper integration of production and supply chains. Building on the China-ASEAN Forum on Emerging Industries, the Artificial Intelligence Cooperation Forum, the Clean Energy Week and other platforms, cooperation should be strengthened in promoting scientific and technological innovation to foster new growth drivers for cooperation in emerging fields. Cooperation should also be carried out in areas including construction of fishery bases, port city cooperation network, marine science and technology, disaster prevention and mitigation, navigation safety, search and rescue, with cooperation in the blue economy vigorously advanced.
Third, ensuring stability and becoming a pioneer in implementing the GSI. Both China and ASEAN are growing rapidly, which is not always smooth sailing. The deliberate sensationalization by some ill-intentioned external forces have also disturbed the security and mutual trust between China and ASEAN. How to promote mutual understanding, reduce misgivings and consolidate the foundation of trust is an important task that requires consistent efforts from both sides. China will work with ASEAN to facilitate the implementation of the GSI, and keep our development and cooperation away from the erosion and impact of a new Cold War or zero-sum mentality. It is necessary to actively explore ways to leverage such existing frameworks as the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) Plus and the ASEAN Regional Forum to strengthen security dialogue and cooperation. Collaboration in non-traditional security domains including law enforcement security, emergency management, public health, food security, energy security and cyber security must be deepened. The text-based COC consultations should be advanced to provide institutional safeguard for making the South China Sea a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.
Fourth, enhancing people-to-people connectivity and becoming a front-runner in implementing the GCI. China is ready to work with ASEAN to further cement the public support for our relations and implement the GCI in an ongoing effort to deepen cultural and people-to-people bonds. The China-ASEAN Year of People-to-People Exchanges next year can provide an opportunity to further amplify the benefits of traditional signature projects, and ensure sound implementation of new flagship initiatives such as the China-ASEAN Institutes of Modern Craftsmanship and the “Plan of Training for 10,000”, and accelerate the restoration of air connectivity. It is necessary to promote interactions, exchanges and development of the youth and in media, education, culture, tourism and other sectors, send more positive messages on China-ASEAN relations, highlight the theme of China-ASEAN friendship and cooperation and contribute to the growth of China-ASEAN relations.
“One Vision, One Identity, One Community” is the ASEAN motto which epitomizes the spirit of seeking strength through unity of the region. As China-ASEAN relations enter a new era of upgrading, let us join hands to build a peaceful, safe and secure, prosperous, beautiful and amicable home and an even closer China-ASEAN community with a shared future, and usher in an even brighter future for China-ASEAN relations in the new era.

Nong Rong is Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs.