Chinese State Councilor and then Foreign Minister Wang Yi laid out six major tasks of China’s diplomacy in 2023 at the Symposium on the International Situation and China’s Foreign Relations held in December 2022.
These include China’s commitment to “the principle of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness and the policy of forging friendship and partnership in our neighbourhood” and to “deepen friendship, mutual trust and convergence of interests with our neighbours”.
While it was not specifically mentioned in Wang’s speech, it is clear that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) remains a priority for China’s neighbouring diplomacy, both in terms of geographical proximity and close economic relations.
In particular, ASEAN not only surpassed the US and the EU to become China’s top trading partner during the pandemic, but it also joined hands with China in fighting the pandemic, truly manifesting the idea of building a “community with a shared future for mankind”. With the reopening of China’s borders on 8 January, the China-ASEAN community with a shared future will also see new opportunities.
... over the long term, normal and even closer economic cooperation will resume.
Moving towards the new normal
In the book The Reshaping of China-Southeast Asia Relations in Light of the Covid-19 Pandemic (2021), I pointed out that the pandemic brings about a “dual influence” on the China-ASEAN community. Although the initial stages of the pandemic had a short-term detrimental impact on bilateral economic and trade cooperation, and anti-Chinese resentment increased, over the long term, normal and even closer economic cooperation will resume.
At the same time, mutual political trust was also enhanced as both sides fought Covid-19 together. Having overcome the initial shock of the pandemic, the building of a China-ASEAN community with a shared future will resume as soon as the pandemic ends.
Other academics also analysed in the book that while the pandemic has led to a rise in domestic resentment against China, it is generally manageable. However, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects and Chinese tourist flow have been disrupted by the outbreaks, and there is much hope that China will reopen its borders soon. In addition, there was no reprieve in South China Sea tensions amid the pandemic, and effective control measures are urgently needed by all parties.
In sum, while the pandemic has exerted a negative impact, it will not stop the building of the China-ASEAN community with a shared future. Several academics also pointed out that China and ASEAN countries should step up cooperation in pandemic control, BRI projects, infrastructure construction, cross-border trade and the digital economy to ease the impacts of the pandemic.
ASEAN countries are now opening up again, while China has just reopened its borders. However, even as everything is returning to normal, it is difficult to resolve the problems that had amassed during the pandemic in one fell swoop. In other words, having lived under a pandemic for three years, China and ASEAN will need some time to make policy and psychological adjustments before they can smoothly transition to the new normal.
Clearly, while the pandemic is coming to an end, the consequences of pandemic politicisation persist.
Continued progress in BRI
Almost all ASEAN countries imposed travel restrictions on Chinese travellers at the beginning of the pandemic. Now that China has reopened its borders, are ASEAN countries ready to embrace Chinese tourists straightaway?
Notably, after China announced plans to reopen its borders, Japan and India immediately imposed travel restrictions on Chinese visitors, while the US has also announced a negative Covid-19 test requirement for travellers from China. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin urged countries to keep their Covid-19 measures “science-based and proportionate” to allow for normal people-to-people exchanges.
Clearly, while the pandemic is coming to an end, the consequences of pandemic politicisation persist. Under such circumstances, it is noteworthy how ASEAN countries will react to the influx of Chinese tourists, and what kind of border measures they will adopt.
At present, most ASEAN countries, including Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, have said that they will not carry out additional control measures for Chinese tourists, taking practical actions to support the normal people-to-people exchanges between China and ASEAN, which is a crucial step towards building a China-ASEAN community with a shared future.
When Covid-19 first broke out, China set up green and express lanes with countries along the BRI to ensure the movement of people and equipment, and to mitigate delays and disruptions in BRI projects.
On 26 December 2022, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said, “This year has seen steady progress and fruitful outcomes of Belt and Road cooperation. China signed Belt and Road cooperation documents with another five countries this year.”
She noted that a large number of signature projects made landmark progress, including the trial run of the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway, a first in ASEAN, and the start of operations of the first expressway in Cambodia.
However, even as China is known for its infrastructure construction, the deaths of two workers following the derailment of a work train on the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway project is a reminder that it cannot neglect workplace safety. The railway is a landmark BRI project, and any slips would have a negative impact on the BRI as a whole.
... given such a short lead time, are the border agencies prepared to handle the surge in recovering trade volume?
Resuming people-to-people exchanges
BRI infrastructure projects will usher in new growth prospects as the ASEAN economies recover and demand strengthens after the pandemic. This is also critical to deepening connectivity and strengthening geographic links between China and the ASEAN community. However, longstanding issues including hiring local workers and meeting environmental standards, as well as the US’s smear tactics on the BRI, will continue to pose challenges to the success of the BRI in Southeast Asia.
In line with Covid-19 control measures, China suspended trade with its neighbours and even built the controversial razor-wire-topped fence on the China-Myanmar border. As a result, cross-border trade plummeted, affecting the livelihoods of people on both sides of the border. Economic development in the border areas also suffered while security issues grew increasingly prominent.
After reopening, cross-border trade will definitely spike in the short term but the risk of importing the virus as well as the increased pressure of border checks are also hurdles that would put a check on continued rapid growth in cross-border trade. In other words, given such a short lead time, are the border agencies prepared to handle the surge in recovering trade volume?
Finally, China and ASEAN are set to resume normal people-to-people exchanges. In particular, regular discussions on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea can resume face-to-face.
However, there remain undercurrents affecting the South China Sea situation, and the external environment is also not conducive to talks. On the one hand, the US has once again accused China of the construction of an uninhabited reef in the Spratly islands. On the other hand, South China Sea claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines have been far from idle.
China’s reopening brings opportunities for building a community with a shared future, and the various parties need to plan, prepare and adequately respond to demand, as well as effectively manage differences to steadily navigate this transition period.
Vietnam and Indonesia recently came to a consensus on the demarcation of exclusive economic zones around the Natuna Islands, and analyses have it that this might prompt some ASEAN countries to form an alliance on the South China Sea issue.
In the Philippines, the government under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr is bolstering its stance on the South China Sea issue, declaring that the Philippines will not lose even an inch of its territory, and openly expressing its intention of unilaterally exploring for oil in the disputed waters. However, after a state visit to China and securing a large number of investment and trade orders, Marcos would probably exercise restraint on the South China Sea issue.
In general, China’s reopening brings opportunities for building a community with a shared future, and the various parties need to plan, prepare and adequately respond to demand, as well as effectively manage differences to steadily navigate this transition period. This would ensure a good start to building a China-ASEAN community after the pandemic.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “疫后中国亚细安命运共同体建设”.
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