For a long time China has prided itself on the gradual improvement and solidification of its relations with the countries of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, mainly through economic means. Since Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s, Chinese leaders have emphasized the significance of shedding decades, if not centuries, of mistrust and confrontation and moving toward cooperation and integration. The China-ASEAN free-trade zone, which came into effect four years ago, was intended to be the symbol of this new relationship.
Over the last five years or so, however, many of the most promising aspects of this cooperation have come into doubt. There are several reasons for this. China has gone through a leadership transition, during which there has been no strong hand at the tiller in terms of foreign relations. There also have been uncertainties on the ASEAN side — in some countries more than others — over the prospect of being overwhelmed by a China that is expanding rapidly. economically.
But most important, the relationship has increasingly been held hostage by the conflict over sovereignty in the South China Sea. Neither side has managed to find a half-decent way of negotiating on the issue.
Some people would say that the downward turn in the relationship is an unavoidable part of China’s rise. Great powers, the theory goes, invariably throw their weight around and antagonize their neighbors. Look at the United States in the 19th century. How many Mexicans, or Cubans, or even Canadians would have seen the United States as a benign power then?
Ultimately, however, smaller nations make their peace with the great power, as they get used to its peculiar ways and the great power learns that more can be achieved through integration and interdependence than through land (or sea) grabs and military posturing.
But the China-ASEAN relationship is not necessarily moving in this direction. Chinese nationalism is more than matched by that of China’s neighbors. The sheer unreasonableness of Beijing’s position on how far its ownership extends in the South China Sea will feed long-term antagonism between the two sides. So too will the perceived Chinese intention to reduce or even break up ASEAN as part of its aspirations to instead deal with individual Southeast Asian countries. Bringing in the United States, Japan or even India to counterbalance China is likely to lead to more conflict, not less.
So the picture for the future is not rosy. The key is to increase the levels of interaction and trust between China and ASEAN. History shows that this can be done, even with a rising great power. But for it to happen, both sides must emphasize those aspects of interaction that bind them rather than those that force them apart.
It is obvious that the main part of such an invigorated relationship will be economic. But there are other parts that need emphasis: Cultural exchanges, educational ties and security consultations all play a role in building long-term trust.
First, however, the different sides need to negotiate effectively over issues that really matter in the relationship now. This is where South China Sea issues come into play. My guess is that economically and strategically, resources and sea lanes in the South China Sea will be less important long term in the ASEAN-China relationship than the economic ties that connect their hardworking and endlessly inventive peoples. But for now, progress in these negotiations is essential to create trust on other matters.
Is the South China Sea an issue for ASEAN as whole? Chinese leaders and some leaders in Southeast Asia would say no, or yes but only with great qualifications. Some would prefer to handle the issue country by country.
They would be wrong. Strategic cohesion on the issue of upholding the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas is a basic matter for the future of ASEAN, as is joint support and advice in terms of member states’ negotiations with outside powers.
China, for its part, needs to rein in a self-centered and sometimes confrontational foreign policy, which is unlikely to succeed. Without a continuous, forward-looking process of negotiations, the ASEAN-China relationship will go nowhere. It’s doubtful that President Xi Jinping seeks to antagonize neighbors on whom China’s continued rise to some extent depends. He may have the wisdom to realize where his and country’s interests lie.
Tensions, conflicts and terrible accidents are almost certain to happen. The challenge will be to handle them in ways that stress the unavoidable need for long-term cooperation.
Odd Arne Westad, a professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science, is the author of Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750.