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A Public Forum on “ASEAN-China Relations: Taking Stock and Looking Ahead”


A Public Forum on “ASEAN-China Relations: Taking Stock and Looking Ahead”

Monday 3rd November 2014 at 8.00 - 11.00 a.m.

The Four Seasons Hotel, Bangkok (Montathip 3)



08.30 – 09.10                      Introductory Remarks

                                            Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak
                                            Director, ISIS Thailand

                                            Mr. Yang Yi
                                            Secretary General
                                            China Institute of International Studies (CIIS)

        Welcome remarks and Introduction

        Prof. Dr. Suchit Bunbongkarn
                    Senior Professorial Fellow and Former Director of ISIS Thailand

                                            Keynote Speech: “ASEAN and the Major Powers in the 21st Century”

                                            H.E. Kasit Piromya
                                            Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Thailand

                                                                                ** Group Photo **

9.10 – 10.40                        Session 1: “Promises and Pitfalls in ASEAN-China Relations: An Overview”

                                            Chair: Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak
                                                       Director, ISIS Thailand

                                            Presenters: Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn
                                                               Senior Fellow, ISIS Thailand

                                                               Mr. Yang Yi
                                                               Secretary General, China Institute of International Studies (CIIS)

                                            Discussants: Tan Sri Mohamed Jawhar Hassan
                                                                 Chairman, Institute of Strategic and International Studies
                                                                 ISIS Malaysia

                                                                 Mr. Yong Chanthalangsy
                                                                 Director-General, Institute of Foreign Affairs (IFA)
                                                                 Laos Ministry of Foreign Affairs


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Keynote Speech: “ASEAN and the Major Powers in the 21st Century”

H.E. Kasit Piromya

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Thailand


ASEAN’s development can be divided into three major phases. First, its inception occurred in 1967 amid the context of the Cold War. The five founding members, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand were anti-Communist and on the side of the free world. China and the Soviet Union were perceived as the enemy, and vice versa. In its first 20 years, ASEAN was backed by North America and the European Community. Development assistance, grants, soft loans, technical assistance and expertise, investment and transfers of technology were provided by the West to protect the frontline ASEAN states against the expansion of Communism into Southeast Asia.


The second phase is the expansion of ASEAN to 10 member states in the post-Cold War era. The objective during this period was for the ASEAN nations to avoid war and create the conditions for peace -- despite their historical, political and cultural differences. ASEAN became a very attractive product during this time, its size and growing economy made it a target for investors, and its success in creating peace and stability in Southeast Asia made it a darling of the globalisation era.


ASEAN is now at a third phase of its development. Its members must deal with new problems, such as cross-border disease, transnational crimes, terrorism, and non-state actors playing a much larger role in the world at large. ASEAN has transformed itself from an ‘association’ to a law-based ‘community’ under the ASEAN Charter. However, now ASEAN is not a frontline organisation preventing Communism and the euphoria of globalisation has subsided.


Internationally, major power relations are in a flux. The United States is stuck in political paralysis. Barak Obama has an excellent analytical mind but has not translated that into an active foreign policy. The recent leadership of Washington has left much to be desired.


The European Union will be increasingly inward looking. The enlargement of the EU came too fast and was at to the detriment of relations with Russia, as evidenced by the recent crisis in Ukraine. India will also remain self-centred and dominated by internal development needs.


Japan might be the only major power which is more outward looking, at least vis-à-vis ASEAN and Southeast Asia to prevent China from playing a dominant role. China will try to maintain cordial relationships with Southeast Asian countries, however China’s rising nationalism is a cause for concern. During the early phase of is rise, China’s focus was on a peaceful environment to allow its development. Now, China’s assertiveness, aggression and nationalistic outlook shows that it no longer believes that a peaceful environment is necessary.


 ASEAN must stop having the ‘dependency mentality’ of relying on the major powers to ensure its development. Collectively ASEAN’s 10 nations have population of over 600 million people, a well-educated leadership, a strong private sector and enough human resources to move forward on its own. ASEAN leaders must meet more often, work together more regularly and have frank political discussions to find more common ground. ASEAN countries cannot have differing positions on issues such as the South China Sea.


In 1776 China ceased its activities in the South China Sea. In recent years it has decided to claim ownership over the entire sea. This position does not make sense. China does not have the right to make a unilateral claim over the entire sea. At different times in history, other countries, such as Portugal, Japan and even Thailand during the Ayutthaya period, had sufficient sea power to justify control of the South China Sea. China does not have the sole historical claim to the South China Sea.


ASEAN leaders must work towards joint positions on the South China Sea and other pressing issues in the region. ASEAN must build common positions in the United Nations, World Trade Organization, World Bank and IMF, and have a more coordinated and joint position on major international issues such as anti-terrorism, piracy or the Islamic State (Da’ish). ASEAN must create self-respect, self-responsibility and self-confidence to be able to project itself globally. The EU will be inwardly focussed, the US will remain paralysed, India will have to deal with domestic issues and China will become more assertive and less trustworthy. ASEAN should not rely on the major powers, but should try to prosper on its own. To achieve this, there must be more political dialogue within ASEAN, the ASEAN countries must be courageous in the face of changing power dynamics, and focus on common values and goals rather than petty or self-interested disputes.


These disputes in ASEAN must be avoided. The Thai-Cambodian dispute should have been resolved by the leaders bilaterally. The Cambodian government should not have taken the dispute to Paris, New York and The Hague. Cambodia should aim towards resolving this conflict for the overall interests of ASEAN, not so it can receive favours or incentives from China. Vietnam and the Philippines cannot be petty minded and focussed on self-interest in their disputes with China over the South China Sea. They must clearly explain to fellow ASEAN states what they want, and work towards building a common ASEAN front on the South China Sea.




Moderator: Thitinan Pongsudhirak

We are currently in the onset of the summit season in Asia. We have APEC in Beijing, followed by EAS in Naypyidaw and then G20 in Brisbane. The ASEAN-China Dialogue is thus both topical and timely. There are many issues to decipher for the region, such as tensions in the South China Sea, China’s rise and, in particular, the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.



Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn

Senior Fellow

ISIS Thailand


In an ideal world, ASEAN and China should be the pillar of regional security and stability in the region, they should have signed the Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation, and should have begun the construction of a high-speed train system linking Kunming to Singapore via Vientiane, Nong Khai, Bangkok and Malaysia. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank should have been signed by all ASEAN countries, including Indonesia. The final implementation of Articles 5, 6 and 10 of the Declaration of Concerned Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and finalisation of the Code of Conduct (COC) to end the destabilising bickering South China Sea should have been completed.


However, high and sustained levels of ‘mutual mistrust’ have held the ASEAN-China relationship back.


The origins of ASEAN-China ties began in 1991 when the first dialogue process began. In 1997 ASEAN-China established a partnership of good neighbourliness and mutual trust, followed by initial FTA negotiations in 2000. In 2003 they upgraded the relationship to a Strategic Partnership and China, along with India, became the first countries to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. This allowed China to enter the inner sanctum of ASEAN. In 2014, the new administration has tried to begin the COC negotiations.

China has the most sophisticated, regular and comprehensive mechanisms of cooperation of all dialogue partners with ASEAN. China has also been generous with investments and loans into ASEAN. ASEAN-China two-way trade now stands at 443 billion USD, having grown by 10.9% in 2013.


The people-to-people exchanges between ASEAN and China are very powerful. There is no other region of the world where there are such large cross-border exchanges of people. In 2013, 18.2 million people visited between ASEAN and China, 12.7 of which came from China. There are also 70,000 Chinese students in ASEAN, and over 68,000 ASEAN students in China.


China’s global development and foreign policy now has a much larger impact on ASEAN than it used to. For example, the Maritime Silk Road, the New Economic Belt and the 2+7 Cooperation framework policies aim to encourage other countries to follow a development path that is suited to their own national conditions, seeking common ground between China’s dream and the rest of the world, which has a major impact on ASEAN.


The ASEAN-China relationship relies on the ‘Three-Cs,’ the first being ‘Community.’ ASEAN is committed to its three-pillar Community building efforts, and China will not aim to impede the progress. However, they hope that the ASEAN Community will be compatible with China’s own Asian community dreams. The second is ‘Connectivity’ between China’s southwest region and mainland Southeast Asia with links to the maritime countries in ASEAN. Finally, the completion of ‘Code of Conduct’ is necessary for long-term peace and stability in Southeast Asia.


China and ASEAN are continuing the dialogue on the COC process, however the process could be extremely long. What has been important is the agreements on three early harvest measures, including hotlines among search and rescue agencies, hotlines among foreign ministries and table-top exercises on search-and-rescue operations.  Other commonalities between ASEAN and China include the goal of peace and stability in the region, safeguarding maritime security and freedom of navigation, avoiding of incidents or tension, fostering an environment conducive to peaceful settlement of disputes, and ensuring the overall progress of ASEAN-China relations.


Thailand has taken its coordinating role as a bridge-builder on the South China Sea issue very seriously. This role has not only benefitted Thailand, but also China and the ASEAN region as whole. Thailand has 8 months left in this role before the Singapore becomes the next coordinator in the South China Sea.


There remains mixed signals as to whether China wants to see a strong ASEAN bloc which has regional centrality, or whether it seeks an ASEAN which is fragmented. China has been quite successful in resolving border disputes, having settled 12 out of 14 outstanding disputes with neighbouring countries. If ASEAN and China want to strengthen their relationship, they must on agree on a rules-based framework with a set of shared norms, must promote trust and confidence, prevent and manage incidents, and create a conducive environment for the peaceful settlement of disputes.


Moderator: Madame Fu Ying once noted that a united ASEAN is fine, but an ASEAN united against China must be avoided. So what kind of united ASEAN will emerge?


Mr. Yang Yi

Secretary General

China Institute of International Studies (CIIS)


The past 20 years has seen rapid development in ASEAN-China relations. Since the establishment of the relationship in 1991, both sides have pursued the path of cooperation and mutual development. The countries have substantial cooperation in over 20 major sectors, including resolution of economic shocks, cross boundary challenges and security issues. The comprehensive and productive cooperation between China and ASEAN promotes social and economic development, and ensures peace and stability in the region, however, there still remain challenges in the relationship.


China and ASEAN have maintained very close political relations in the past decade. The economic cooperation has been good, having reach 443.6 billion USD, with a goal of reaching 1 trillion USD by 2020. People-to-people and cultural exchanges continue to increase, which will promote understanding between ASEAN and Chinese people and enhance public support for cooperation in the future.


In the South China Sea, the Chinese perspective is that generally speaking the overall situation is stable. The Chinese do not see any problem with freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and it remains one of the most economically dynamic regions in the world. There are different interpretations of the freedom of navigation; China and ASEAN share one definition, while the United States has a different understanding. 


China’s comprehensive national power has continually improved since its reform and opening up to the outside world in 1978. The new leadership is working on establishing strong rule-of-law, deepening reforms, and address factors constraining further development.


China will continue to adhere to peaceful development and the principle of mutual benefit and cooperation. There have not been any major adjustments in the assertiveness or aggressiveness of China’s policy towards neighbouring countries and ASEAN. The only changes have been the emphasis on importance of trade and upgrading economic relations. Relations with ASEAN have always topped China’s diplomatic agenda.


President Xi Jinping recently pointed out that the Chinese leadership will insist on treating neighbouring countries as friends and partners, make them feel safe and help them develop. He highlighted four concepts for good neighbourliness; friendship, sincerity, benefit and inclusiveness. China will embrace and practise these concepts with the hope that they will become the shared beliefs and norms for the whole region.


China has also recently proposed the Maritime Silk Road and Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank, which was signed by 21 member countries and is to be established at the end of 2015. All ASEAN countries, except Indonesia, have joined the AIIB. All of these proposals focus on the political, economic, connectivity, maritime, security and people-to-people fields. They have received positive support and feedback from ASEAN countries.


The new Chinese leadership is committed to handling the South China Sea issue in the spirit of peace and cooperation. China-ASEAN signed the DOC in 2002 and in 2011 reached consensus on guidelines to follow up actions for the implementation of the DOC. China and ASEAN have agreed that they will fully implement the DOC and try to reach an early conclusion of the COC as early as possible based on the consensus of friendly consultation. 


The region’s peace and stability is the most important foundation for ASEAN-China relations. The ASEAN Way should be the means through which differences are resolved by friendly consultations and dialogue. ASEAN-China relations should seek to deepen cooperation in all sectors and continue to improve cooperation mechanisms. They should actively engage in maritime and security cooperation and foster friendship among all people.



Tan Sri Mohamed Jawhar Hassan


Institute of Strategic and International Studies

ISIS Malaysia


China and ASEAN are geographically contiguous, and almost all ASEAN countries share land and sea borders. They are critical economic partners and depend on each other for mutual prosperity. Everyone knows about ASEAN’s dependence on China, but sometimes there is a tendency to think that China does not depend very much on ASEAN economically. The truth is that China’s future will very much depend on trade with a large and growing ASEAN.


The intercourse between ASEAN and China is more intense than any other dialogue partner, whether it be in the economic, political or cultural spheres. There are many areas where China’s involvement is good for ASEAN, such as the AIIB. ASEAN member states should welcome the AIIB as it brings much needed infrastructure investment and new opportunities. The positives of Chinese involvement in ASEAN must be remembered.

However, there also remain many pitfalls.

1)      Dispute in the South China Sea. Without the dispute in the South China Sea, ASEAN would have no problem with China. It is this dispute which is at the forefront of ASEAN’s relations with China.

China needs to address this problem. Negotiations followed on UNCLOS mean that all relevant parties know the parameters as it follows common international law. Differences can be solved by third parties.


The Nine-Dash-Line declaration is problematic for the dispute. The claimants in ASEAN and the entire international community are confused or in opposition to China’s claim over the entire South China Sea.

2)      There is increasing asymmetry between China and ASEAN in terms of power. Tied to this is perceived assertiveness on the part of China. Territorial disputes tend to be fought over the hardest, and tensions are exacerbated when resources or geostrategic interests are at play. China’s increasing assertiveness will perpetuate the impression of asymmetry and further drive tensions and mistrust.

3)      ASEAN is growing more dependent on the Chinese economy. Chinese economic presence in ASEAN has elicited strong emotional and political reactions. To mitigate against this, it is essential for ASEAN member states to rely on each other more by strengthening on the AEC and relying less on foreign direct investment.

4)      Neutrality is essential for ASEAN. Equidistance between contending major powers is very important, especially in the context of a resuscitation of great power rivalry. ASEAN is the anchor of the ARF, EAS and other mechanisms of the regional architecture, which is accepted because ASEAN is seen as being a neutral player in the region.  Hence, ASEAN should ensure it remains equidistant between China, the United States and other major powers in the region.


There also needs to be a distinction made between the neutrality of ASEAN and ASEAN member states. In the past 2 years there have been some member states which have gravitated towards the United States and Japan, or China. These states may perceive closer relations with major powers as necessary for their national security, but it must not be to the detriment of regional integration.


5)      Major power rivalry has exacerbated tensions in the region. Some major powers are exploiting the ASEAN-China tensions in South China Sea issue for their own interests, sometimes for legitimate reasons but often just to extend their power into the region. ASEAN has to be aware of this and carefully manage these great power tensions.

Regional peace and security is being undermined as a result of all these pitfalls in the ASEAN-China relationship. For the future, both ASEAN and China will have to work very hard on strengthening the positives in their relationship. The only major negative is the dispute in the South China Sea. Once this is resolved, the rest of the challenges will be easily resolved. Conclusion of the COC will allow tensions to be managed and diffused, creating binding rules of cooperation and work towards resolution.




Mr. Yong Chanthalangsy


Institute of Foreign Affairs (IFA)

Laos Ministry of Foreign Affairs


The world is in the midst of change. In terms of economics and world power, the United States is now closely followed by China, while the European Union is closely followed by India. This shift has disturbed the minds of many and may raise legitimate concerns, but attentive consideration must be given that the rise of China and India is inevitable.


Furthermore, the dispute in the South China Sea between China and ASEAN claimants should not be allowed to overshadow what should be an overwhelmingly positive relationship. China became a dialogue partner with ASEAN in 1991, and since then it has become one of its top economic partners. Last year, ASEAN-China trade amounted to more than 400 billion USD and is expected to reach 1 trillion USD by 2020.  China has strongly supported ASEAN’s Community building efforts and has accepted ASEAN centrality in the region’s summits and forums. China has also provided 10 million yuan for think tank cooperation and Track II conferences.


Both China and ASEAN still need to build the infrastructure to facilitate people-to-people links in the region. Once the infrastructure is made available, people-to-people interactions ‘take care of themselves.’ ASEAN and China also need to complete the vision of the master plan on connectivity, and the roadmap on ASEAN transportation and integration. China and ASEAN already have a framework agreement on goods in transit, an ASEAN single aviation market, facilitation of cross-border transport of passengers by road vehicles, and the implementation of a single shipping market. Both ASEAN and China will be enormous beneficiaries if all of these plans are initiated. The Kunming-Singapore railway network, passing through Laos, Thailand and Malaysia, will bring tremendous change in the region.


Laos, located at the centre of the ASEAN region, is ready to open all of the corridors for north-south and east-west cooperation between China and the ASEAN member states. Laos is pushing hard for the completion of the ASEAN-China railway network as well as the New Maritime and Mainland Silk Roads proposed by President Xi Jinping. Mr. Chanthalangsy also explained that Laos is enthusiastic about the ASEAN Infrastructure Development Bank, which promises to bring about the facilitation of an expanded transport network in the region.





Public Participation


Moderator: There have been many issues laid out here. Despite cooperation, there appears to be considerable – even growing – mistrust between China and ASEAN. The

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