AS expected by China watchers, China announced a $20-billion loan and infrastructure program for members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at last week’s Asean and East Asia Summit in Myanmar. On top of that, China floated the possibility of a “friendship treaty” with Southeast Asian nations in an apparent bid to defuse regional tensions that spiked this year over contested seas.
At the East Asia Summit in Myanmar on Thursday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said $10 billion would be made available to the 10-member Asean in cheap loans and a further $10 billion for infrastructure projects.
Beijing also agreed to set up a hotline to help avert flashpoints in the often bitterly disputed South China Sea (West Philippine Sea), and stood ready to sign a “treaty of friendship and cooperation” with the bloc, according to Li. During the earlier Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to establish a hotline to avoid possible clashes over waters disputed by their countries.
Four Asean states—the Philippines, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and Vietnam—claim parts of the South China Sea, a key global shipping lane believed to be rich in undersea gas deposits.
Although China’s $20-billion loan facilities for Southeast Asian nations and its avowed readiness to sign a “friendship treaty” are welcome developments, the Asian superpower still has a lot to do to show that it seriously wants to take the first steps to promote peace and stability in the region.
Prior to the APEC and Asean/East Asia summits, China wanted to settle sea disputes bilaterally and not talk with Asean as a bloc. Such as stance clearly shows that China wants to use its might, military, economic, diplomatic and cultural, in dealing with each of our smaller nations.
But its recent signs of willingness to deal with Asean as a bloc may show a change in approach. Perhaps, China’s leaders have realized that with the 10 Asean countries poised to launch their economic integration on December 31st 2015, the 10 will eventually become something, loosely, like one country. So dealing with Asean as a collective would still be in a sense dealing “bilaterally.”
China also knows that with the rest of the world in a slump, expanding its economic ties and cooperation with Asean will reap tremendous benefits for it. For one, the 600-million strong Asean population is a large market that will only continue to have China as its main supplier of imports if genuine friendship exists. And in fact relatively poor Philippines invests more in China than China does in our country.
The growth of existing trade and people-to-people relations between China and the Asean countries can — and should — only continue.
One of the great things about Chinese and Filipino people to people relations is that despite the deterioration of government-to-government relations because of the maritime disputes, people-to-people and business-to-business ties and transactions have actually grown. Obviously to again show its displeasure with the BS Aquino administration, the Chinese government issued a travel advisory to Chinese citizens against coming to the Philippines because the Aquino government cannot protect Chinese from kidnappers and bandits. Despite this official warning, however, Chinese tourists have continued to come to the Philippines and there was only a decline in the rate of growth not an actual decline of the number of tourists from China.
Asean countries and peoples—maybe specially so we Filipinos– need China and the Chinese as friends and business partners. But so do China and a great many Chinese need the Asean countries and the people of these countries.
Going against that need will make both sides suffer.
That is the great reality. The reason China and the Asean countries and their peoples must be friends and partners forever.