For ASEAN, China is a neighboring country as well as a strategic partner in various fields, especially in the economic field. China has become the largest ASEAN trading partner for 13 consecutive years since 2009 (Global Times, 2022).
A survey conducted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute to more than 1,600 ASEAN citizens said that 76.7% of them chose China as the most influential economic power in ASEAN (Heijmans, 2022). China has also grown to become an economic giant in the Asian region and is predicted to surpass the US as the world’s strongest economy by 2030 (Jennings, 2022).
This mutual relationship between China and ASEAN is getting stronger after the agreement of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP). In the economic aspect, the implementation of the CSP is carried out in line with the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) project. Both projects are grand plans that have been prepared for economic integration and encouraging a more inclusive trade between two parties.
On the other hand, ASEAN also has a similar agenda in the region, which is to build an economic community that regulates trade as well as delivers economic benefit to its members. The common vision between China and ASEAN certainly smoothes the process of this cooperation. Then, how can China and ASEAN achieve their common goals? Are there any obstacles and challenges that they will face in implementing this CSP?
China-ASEAN: Sharing The Same Economic Vision
In pushing its foreign policy agenda, China has made visits to various neighboring countries in recent years. Rather than building an image as an economic great power, China focuses more on a friendly approach by promoting “a community with a shared future” to its neighbors (Wei, 2022). As a close neighbor and strategic partner, ASEAN become the one whom China wants to share the future with.
For ASEAN, BRI and RCEP itself have an aligned purpose with the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). AEC aims to promote a single market and product base, a highly competitive region, with equitable economic development (ASEAN, 2020a). Through AEC, ASEAN also commits to a freer flow of goods and services, and eases the distribution of skilled labor and the flow of capital in the region (Asian Development Bank Institute, 2015).
ASEAN’s ambition to build an integrated regional economy sounds promising. However, building an integrated economy ecosystem doesn’t only require geographical proximity, but also an adequate infrastructure (Donghyun et al., 2008).
Even though Southeast Asia is rich in resources and manufacturing, some areas still suffer from infrastructure lack and slow industrial development. Several ASEAN countries still have poor transportation infrastructures. In fact, transportation is a key factor in fastening economic distribution.
At this point, China came up with a BRI project plan which mainly prioritized large investments in transportation infrastructure (Donghyun et al., 2008). This long-term project has ample potential to provide infrastructure and other development facilities, hence promoting the growth in the region (Iqbal et al., 2019).
The CSP also regulates the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement that aims to broaden and deepen free trade activity between ASEAN-China, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, and Australia (“RCEP: Overview and Economic Impact,” 2020). The RCEP later marks the birth of the world’s largest FTA which surely opens up wider trade and market access for ASEAN.
The RCEP will also help both China and ASEAN forge mutually beneficial industrial chain and supply chain partnerships, also to shape more inclusive trade cooperation in the future (Bo & Jing, n.d.). This opportunity is expected to be an open door for ASEAN integration with global trade, which is also the initial mission of AEC. Also can attract other countries to plant their foreign investment in ASEAN countries (ASEAN, 2020b).
For China, BRI and RCEP are essential to strengthen China’s position in the region. China is contriving to build “literal and metaphorical” bridges as a connector and a highway to greater influence in global politics and economy (Lockhart, 2020).
Both China and ASEAN share great economic interests in the CSP agreement. This makes both parties find a smooth path in the negotiation and agreement process. However, in the implementation process, ASEAN and China need to be more serious and committed.
ASEAN is currently in the process of compiling the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) Blueprint 2025. The mid-term review criticized the uneven implementation of the AEC blueprint, with “easier” initiatives prioritized over challenging commitments. Both policy-making processes at national levels and practice need to be in line in order to reach common goals (Chen & Jye, 2022).
The Covid-19 pandemic becomes another obstacle to realizing economic integration in the region. The pandemic hits ASEAN quite heavily, where currently the members are still concerned about restoring the stability of the domestic economy. The cooperation with China is used well by ASEAN countries at the national level, such as the proposal submission for building several economic infrastructures by Indonesia, encouraging digital development in Thailand, signing economic bilateral relations with Vietnam, etc. Yet for the regional purpose, it still needs to be maximized.
The CSP begins a higher level of relationship, as reflected in the deeper cooperation, shared normative frameworks and institutionalized cooperative mechanisms, and high-level political commitment and priority from China and ASEAN (Ha, 2022). It will be less than optimal if ASEAN only sees CSP as a bridge to strengthen bilateral relations with China. ASEAN needs to view CSP as a strategic relationship for an ideal future of regional economic integration.
For optimizing the common goals for both, mutual political trust is the basis and safeguard (Bu, 2015). CSP does not happen overnight, building connectivity and an integrated ecosystem is a large-scale and long-term project. In order to reap the rewards of this investment and agreement, active dialogue, healthy relations, and stable growth of the upbringing of China-ASEAN relations must be strived by both parties.