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    ASEAN Puts Suspicions to Rest, Embraces Relations with China

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    Leaders of Southeast Asian nations meeting in Laos later this month will join with China to adopt a joint declaration on a strategic partnership for peace and prosperity. The declaration highlights the dramatic transformation in the way Southeast Asians view China and its rising profile in the region.

    ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, was founded in 1967 at the height of the Chinese-backed Communist insurgency in Vietnam. Concerned about China's intentions to spread socialism throughout Southeast Asia, leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, joined against the threat of China's expansionism.

    Since then, China has abandoned its socialist zeal in favor of a free-market system and two decades of capitalist-style reforms have made it one of the world's fastest growing economies.

    Nations of ASEAN, now 10 members strong, have come to see China and its fast-growing economy no longer as a threat but as a potential boon for their exports and a partner in the age of globalization.

    Qi Luo is a professor of economics and Chinese politics at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He says the joint declaration on strategic partnership will be a milestone for China's relations with its Southeast neighbors.

    "This is a goal China has been pursuing in the last 10 years," said Qi Luo. "China also realizes ASEAN is a big market. China realizes [that] together with ASEAN, they can form the world's largest trade block. It seems like it could be seen as a win-win situation for both China and ASEAN."

    Chinese officials this month said trade with ASEAN nations has been rising by an average of 20 percent annually for the past decade, with trade volume expected to reach $100 billion this year.

    Expanding trade with Asian neighbors has required China's leaders to promote good relations with them. The strategy Beijing has adopted is one of using soft power - persuading others to pursue the same goals through economic incentives - such as lowering tariffs on imports - and diplomacy, rather than coercion.

    Ralph Cossa heads the Pacific Forum, a policy institute in the U.S. state of Hawaii. He says Beijing's approach has worked well with ASEAN.

    "It's certainly now much too strong and much too economically overpowering in the region to be ignored or to be isolated," said Ralph Cossa. "Therefore everyone is trying to hedge with China rather than hedge against China, and [get] part of the benefits of a rising China."

    Analysts tend to agree that Southeast Asian nations will benefit from new access to China's huge market and from Chinese investment.

    There are some cautious voices, however, suggesting, China's neighbors have reason to be apprehensive over their expanding partnership with the growing giant. Li Nan at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore says this is especially so as China steps up manufacturing of electronics and other high-value added products, traditionally a domain of nations such as Singapore and Malaysia.

    "The concern is [that] in the longer run, China is going to be manufacturing [high value added] goods, and ASEAN might be reduced to the level that provides energy supplies, agricultural produce, low value-added products," said Li Nan.

    Other concerns include that a longtime territorial dispute over South China Sea islands between a number of ASEAN members and China could flare and hurt trade.

    Critics have accused China of remaining inflexible on the issue. They say Beijing has done nothing to resolve the dispute since a joint declaration was signed in 1997 pledging non-aggression. They say the document was non-binding and served only the purpose of defusing tensions at the time.

    Southeast Asian nations have worried that China's modernization of its military - including its navy - might soon enable Beijing to enforce its claims.

    But despite such concerns, ASEAN is growing comfortable with its giant neighbor and will sign a major free trade deal and an agreement on dispute resolution when leaders and minister meet in Vientiane, Laos, for the ASEAN summit.

     

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