Fu Ying elaborates on China-ASEAN progress in 20 years


Editor's Note

As China and ASEAN jointly celebrate the 20th anniversary of China's accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, senior diplomat Fu Ying gifted China Daily with diplomatic details then and now and elaborates on several issues relating to South China Sea disputes and US influences in an exclusive interview with China Daily.


Q1: This year marks the 20th anniversary of China's accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. Could you share with us anything that particularly impressed you most when the treaty was signed in Bali 20 years ago?

Fu Ying: Twenty years ago China acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), a milestone in the development of China-ASEAN relations, which is a natural result of the growing understanding and trust between the two sides.

The treaty was established in 1976 by Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia, founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, during the first ASEAN summit. In 1990, I joined the Department of Asian Affairs of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and that gave me the chance to witness and to be part of the takeoff phase of China-ASEAN relations.

In the early days of reform and opening-up China was committed to shaping a favorable external environment for collaboration, and it moved closer to ASEAN in the common pursuit of maintaining regional peace and promoting inclusive development and started the political dialogue process in 1991. In the decade since, relations between the two sides have developed rapidly, with a small step every year and a big step in every three years.

The year 2003 was important in China-ASEAN relations. In the spring when SARS was raging in Asia, China and ASEAN held a special leaders' meeting and decided to tackle the problem together. In October Chinese leaders visited Southeast Asia again to attend the Seventh China-ASEAN (10+1) Summit in Bali, Indonesia. The most important result of the summit was that the two sides signed a joint declaration on Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity.

Under this framework the political document of China's accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia took the lead among all the major countries engaged with TAC, which further enhanced mutual trust and took China-ASEAN collaboration to a new level. With China's leading role, countries including India, Japan, South Korea, Denmark, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates have also acceded to the treaty, enhancing ASEAN's influence and its "central role" in building regional cooperation and security frameworks.

Q2: What are the most outstanding achievements of China and ASEAN countries in the past 20 years thanks to the treaty? As the world undergoes profound changes, what still needs to be done to build a closer ASEAN-China community?

Fu Ying: The establishment of the strategic partnership between China and ASEAN and China's accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia 20 years ago cleared major political hurdles and trust deficits, providing an important impetus for the relationship to move into a golden 20 years. China-ASEAN relations have made significant strides in the following areas:

First, political mutual trust has become increasingly solid. In November 2021, at the Special Summit to Commemorate the 30th Anniversary of China-ASEAN Dialogue Relations, the two sides announced the establishment of a comprehensive strategic partnership for peace, security, prosperity and sustainable development. The two sides have formulated the Plan of Action (2021-25) to implement the China-ASEAN strategic partnership.

Second, economic integration has deepened. China's trade with ASEAN continues to grow rapidly, expanding nearly 12-fold from $78.2 billion in 2003 to $975.3 billion last year. In 2020, ASEAN became China's largest trading partner, and China has been ASEAN's largest trading partner for more than 10 years. At present, China and ASEAN have been each other's largest trading partner for three consecutive years.

Third, connectivity has improved. The two sides have worked closely on synergizing the Belt and Road Initiative and the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025 in carrying out high-quality collaboration to forge a closer, open and integrated regional development pattern. The China-Laos railway is up and running. The construction of the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway, the China-Thailand railway and a number of other Belt and Road projects is accelerating. Transport, communication and new-energy projects are being carried out to improve the well-being of more than 2 billion people.

Fourth, people-to-people exchanges have become more active. Platforms such as the China-ASEAN Expo, the China-ASEAN Education Cooperation Week and the ASEAN-China Centre have built bridges to connect our two peoples. Media think tanks have promoted civilizational exchanges and mutual learning through high-level seminars, forums and dialogue. Policy communication, personnel exchange, platform construction and joint work on technology transfer have boosted science and technology collaboration and exchange.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the strategic partnership between China and ASEAN, along with China's accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. Looking ahead, both sides should uphold the principles of mutually beneficial collaboration and strive to explore new opportunities for working together, at the same time jointly safeguarding peace and security, promoting economic stability and prosperity, and fostering people-to-people exchanges and friendships.

This steadfast commitment aims to nurture an environment conducive to expanding and enhancing our cooperative endeavors. China has, continues to be and will always be a good neighbor, friend and partner to ASEAN.


Wuling Air electric vehicles at the camp of Wuling Motors Indonesia are on standby for the 42nd ASEAN Summit in Labuan Bajo, Indonesia. Wuling provided commuter services for delegations to and from the summit venue from May 9 to 11. [Photo/Xinhua]

Q3: You've been working in Southeast Asia for years and have been deeply involved in exchanges over the South China Sea. How can countries involved in sea disputes here better handle the situation and make the South China Sea a sea of peace, friendship and collaboration?

Fu Ying: China's sovereignty and maritime rights and interests over the islands and reefs of the South China Sea have been established through a long historical process. The disputes over territorial sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction between China and some neighboring countries around some islands and reefs in the South China Sea began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which are related to the geographical position of the South China Sea, the establishment of the relevant regime of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the discovery of oil and gas resources.

China has long upheld peaceful negotiations to resolve differences, primarily to maintain the general stability of the China-ASEAN relationship and to protect a peaceful and cooperative security environment in its neighborhood.

Through negotiations with the parties directly involved in the disputes and in political consultations with ASEAN countries, China has ensured that disputes in the South China Sea have not been exacerbated. In 2002 the country and ASEAN members signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which is committed to managing differences in the South China Sea, promoting maritime cooperation, strengthening good neighborliness and mutual trust, and jointly maintaining peace and stability in the region.

However, since 2009, as the US has pushed its so-called Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy, the South China Sea has once again been embroiled in conflict. In fact, after World War II the US extended its support and recognition for China's sovereignty over islands of the South China Sea. Nonetheless, as the international situation changed, US policy concerning the South China Sea gradually altered, regressing into "maintaining neutrality", or even "choosing sides", flagrantly intervening in disputes relating to the South China Sea.

In 2014 China and ASEAN countries proposed to adopt a "dual-track approach". That is, on the one hand, China and the parties directly concerned would resolve maritime disputes through amicable consultation; on the other, China would work with ASEAN countries to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea. The countries involved in the South China Sea disputes have established various mechanisms for bilateral dialogue and consultation, including those between China and Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries. These mechanisms have helped the countries concerned to resolve their differences, enhance mutual trust and promote collaboration.

At the same time China has accelerated the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the negotiation of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea with ASEAN countries. Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the declaration, in which leaders of China and ASEAN countries released a joint statement, recognizing the benefits of having the South China Sea as a sea of peace, friendship, and cooperation. China also organized a high-level commemorative seminar, which I attended together with counterparts of ASEAN countries to discuss strategies for maintaining stability and governance in the South China Sea.

As for maritime collaboration, various projects have been organized relating to marine environmental protection, scientific research, search and rescue, law enforcement, navigational safety and military mutual trust, and a hotline platform for senior diplomats has been established. Important instruments such as the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea in the South China Sea and the Declaration for Coastal and Marine Environmental Protection in the South China Sea were agreed on. China has also engaged in joint maritime development with countries directly concerned in the South China Sea.

Peace and stability in the South China Sea is a matter of development for regional countries and a common concern for the international community. China and ASEAN countries, as parties directly concerned in properly handling the issue and managing differences in the South China Sea, should adhere to the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, respect well recognized international law and the ASEAN way of consensus building and accommodating each other's comfort level, and effectively manage differences and disputes based on regional peace and stability and mutually beneficial cooperation. All parties should stay vigilant and resist anything that jeopardizes collaboration, peace and stability in this region and protect the freedom and safety of navigation. They must work together to truly build the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.

Q4: With the full implementation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, where do you think the next growth areas of collaboration between the two sides? The blue economy, green economy, digital economy infrastructure and so on? Will they promote the interdependence of the two sides and international multipolarization?

Fu Ying: The RCEP, initiated by ASEAN in 2012, was officially signed on November 15, 2020 and came into force on January 1 last year, with 10 ASEAN countries and China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand as members. As the RCEP agreement took effect for the Philippines on June 2 this year, the world's largest free trade zone entered the phase of full implementation.

The RCEP brings tangible benefits to businesses and people in the region through means including tariff preferences, customs clearance simplification, trade and investment facilitation, and everyone shares new opportunities for collaboration and development presented that the agreement presents. Last year China's bilateral trade with 13 other RCEP member countries where the RCEP agreement has come into force reached $1.85 trillion, up 7.5 percent year-on-year, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the value of China's total imports and exports. Rates of growth in China's imports and exports to the eight RCEP member countries exceeded double digits, and rates of growth of its imports and exports to some ASEAN countries, namely Indonesia, Singapore, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, exceeded 20 percent.

The RCEP not only provides a broader platform for regional development, but also brings new areas of growth such as the blue economy, green economy and digital economy infrastructure, expanding new space for upgraded collaboration and paving new ways for high-quality collaboration between China and ASEAN. Taking the digital economy as an example, the RCEP Cross-Border e-Commerce Development Report published in November said that after the RCEP agreement was signed in the fourth quarter of 2021 the business-to-business index of cross-border e-commerce for small and medium-sized companies in ASEAN countries rose rapidly, bucking the trend during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The implementation of the RCEP and the new round of China-ASEAN FTA upgrading negotiations will mutually reinforce each other. In the future a multi-level overlapping regional cooperation structure based on bilateral cooperation between China and ASEAN, complemented by various regional trade agreements, will further develop, which will enrich and further integrate the industrial and supply chains in the region, stimulate the potential of regional countries to complement each other's advantages and promote a wider, higher and deeper level of openness and cooperation.

Though unilateralism and trade protectionism are on the rise, full implementation of the RCEP indicates that China and ASEAN countries are jointly sending positive signals to support multilateralism and free trade, and are moving against anti-globalization, counter-globalization and confrontation based on values and ideological demarcation.

Q5: It is often said in the United States that the country should strengthen its partnership with ASEAN and other countries to shape the strategic environment around China in order to keep China in check. In some Southeast Asian countries there is also a long-standing view that ASEAN countries should take the initiative to act as a balance between the major powers and to improve their security when major powers are seeking to maintain strategic balance. What do you think of this, and do you think China should do something to calm the security fears of small and medium-sized countries that consider themselves caught in a conflict between the big powers?

Fu Ying: I do not believe that manipulating small and medium-sized countries is the way a responsible power should behave. Southeast Asia has painful memories of being enslaved and exploited by foreign powers in modern history. During the Cold War the US and the Soviet Union used Southeast Asia as a key frontier for confrontation and competition, and fought proxy wars and formed military blocs that led to long-term turmoil and poverty for some small and medium-sized countries caught in conflict. After the Cold War ended, countries in this region focused on economic development and worked together, and as a result enjoyed better times. They supported economic globalization, improvement of relations between major powers and mutually beneficial integration between countries because they understood that this security policy best serves their interests.

I have interacted with diplomats from ASEAN countries in the past. They have often said that major powers are like elephants in the jungle, while other countries are like grass, and when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. This concern of ASEAN countries is understandable. While promoting their own reform and development, ASEAN countries are forming country groups, promoting regional collaboration and engaging in diversified and balanced diplomacy involving various actors, seeking to play a "central role" in promoting regional integration and to be a "coordinator" in promoting reconciliation among major powers. They value the recognition and support that China provides.

Now in the third decade of the 21st century, the US has made China a target of strategic competition and is pursuing its so-called Indo-Pacific strategy, the goal being to "contain" and encircle China. The US is pushing the region back into the abyss of Cold War confrontation, working out how to divide the regional security order into blocs, how to draw in and exploit small and medium-sized countries to restrain and suppress competitors, and how to put together a supply chain alliance "decoupling from China". This strategy reflects an outdated Cold War mentality that is dangerous and runs counter to the will of people.

China and ASEAN are close neighbors that are immovable. China upholds its policy of neighborhood diplomacy featuring amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness as well as building partnerships with its neighbors, and does not require ASEAN countries to choose between China and the US. At the same time, we believe ASEAN countries have their own views and are capable of adhering to their own diplomatic principles and their central role in building regional collaboration and regional security frameworks. We also believe ASEAN countries are unwilling to be manipulated by one major power to harm the other.

This article was first published in China Daily on July 14, 2023.

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