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China’s Octoberfest of ... grand diplomacy

And how is Asean responding?

IT was so well choreographed.

Many comment that China was making hay while the sun shines. This is not quite accurate, although it helped the Americans went AWOL, with Barack Obama forced to stay at home and not come to the main regional meetings and visits of the year.

Thus China made the running in South-East Asia this past month with a series of diplomatic moves underlined by a proposal for a treaty of good neighbourliness and friendly cooperation with Asean.

First mentioned by President Xi Jinping in his address to the Indonesian Parliament on Oct 3, the proposal was formally tabled by Prime Minister Li Keqiang at the summit with Asean in Brunei a week later.

After two and a half years of South China Sea assertiveness and incidents, China appears to have decided to leave it all behind with a string of new strategic initiatives of engagement with South-East Asia, to be formally contained in the treaty proposal.

While foreign minister Wang Yi (who served in the Asian affairs department of the ministry in 1982-89 and 1994-98) may have had an influence, the decision on a fresh approach can be traced to President Xi’s statement to the Politburo at the end of July that cooperation – joint development – rather than confrontation should be the way to address the various sea disputes with a number of South-East Asian states. (I had written then that Asean should grasp the olive branch). Now it has been advanced by personal diplomacy involving both the President and Prime Minister Li.

Xi Jinping visited Indonesia and Malaysia, and attended the Bali Apec summit in early October. Li Keqiang attended the Asean and other summits in Brunei that followed, and then made official visits to Thailand and Vietnam.

The tenth anniversary of China’s strategic partnership with Asean in August provided the springboard to launch the new diplomatic initiative which has deep strategic significance to the geopolitics of South-East Asia. American President Barack Obama’s absence from the summits and cancellation of scheduled regional visits because of governmental paralysis in Washington afforded a cutting edge to China’s initiative, although the chronology evidences no dependence on what the Americans did or did not do.

It is about what China can do. In a wider context however it has the element of a strategic response to the American pivot to the region.

In individual Asean countries and with Asean as a whole, China proposed to lift relations to an ensconced strategic partnership, with detailed content on trade, investment, finance and joint development. It could not be in greater contrast to the American vision of the future filled with concepts and ideas of uncertain implication. And a commitment of suspect duration.

Like in the past ten years, trade will hold together the China-Asean relationship (see charts). China has been Asean’s largest trading partner since 2009 and Asean China’s third largest since 2010. Trade value of US$500bil by 2015 is very achievable. Notice how it has jumped from US$280bil to US$400bil in just one year.

But this time around it will be augmented by finance, infrastructure development and investment to power the next phase of Asia’s economic growth, with the spoiler of the past two and a half years – the South China Sea disputes – safely put to seabed.

And with a proposed treaty to underscore the strategic partnership, there will be legal governance of the relationship and commitments.

What should Asean do? No doubt individual Asean countries will follow up with the beneficial economic dimension of relationship with China which inevitably strengthens political ties. However Asean as a whole must get its finger out and respond to the Chinese initiative. The asinine chairman’s statement at the end of the Asean-China summit in Brunei on 9 October noted “with appreciation China’s proposed treaty....” And then stated: “We acknowledged Indonesia’s idea in having a treaty of friendship and cooperation that includes a wider Indo-Pacific region, beyond Asean and China.” Earlier, in the statement at the end of Asean summit itself, that Indonesian idea was also noted “with appreciation.” It must all however “be based on the principles contained in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC, 1976) and in line with the 2011 Declaration of the East Asia Summit on the Principles for mutually beneficial relations (Bali Principles).”

Oh dear, you might say. All this rich tapestry, “berlapis-lapis” (multi-layered). Everything must go back in time, not forward. The Indonesian proposal, for instance, was made by its foreign minister Marty Natalegawa at a conference in Washington on May 16 and repeated at the Asia-Pacific Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur at the end of that month. Asean only notes it, now?

But we have to be patient with the delicate intra-Asean diplomacy that is going on. There seems to be competing strategies, certainly a sense of competitive treaties based on national pride. Often all this is subsumed in the notion of Asean centrality in all regional affairs. Which region, and how far? The countries coming into the region – including China and the US - all mutter the mantra of Asean centrality, but truth is they are all coming to the region for their own reasons, not Asean’s.

Individual member states strike out in strategic relationships understandably for their own perceived benefit. What more the major powers, while muttering the mantra of Asean centrality if necessary.

It is becoming a bit of a charade. And it will go on, all this machination. What Asean must do is to get real. Look within itself. Where there is agreement, get moving. Surely there is agreement among each one of its member states, including the Philippines, in having a good economic relationship with China. Certainly Asean contends it is united on wanting to have a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea beyond a mere Declaration of good conduct (since 2002).

Here we have it all rolled into one in a treaty specific to China-Asean relations. It need not be a strategic treaty of peace and friendship like the one signed by the Soviet Union and India in 1971, or the proposed treaty proposed by Marty. Indeed China does not couch its proposal in those terms.

Here is an opportunity to capture the future and put the South China Sea disputes behind us. So what is Asean waiting for?

For Myanmar to take the lead next year? Asean must get cracking. Convene a leaders summit specially to respond to the specifics of China’s initiatives. The matter cannot wait on another scheduled summit, or be assigned in typical Asean fashion to another high level task force next October. The respective foreign ministries should do the work cooperatively (as the Asean secretariat certainly cannot) to support the leaders and to get the secretariat to schedule the summit at the earliest possible time.

Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat, is visiting senior fellow at LSE IDEAS (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy). He is the author of 9/11 and the Attack on Muslims.