China and member states of ASEAN are marking the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the China-ASEAN dialogue this week in Nanning, China. Held for the first time in a Chinese city, the China-ASEAN Commemor-ative Summit is living testimony to Beijing's rising (soft) power.
The history of China and its Southeast Asian neighbors during the Cold War years was one of both amity and animosity. While Beijing enjoyed close ties with Indonesia and Burma and provided strong support to its fellow communist regime in North Vietnam, it became estranged from many of Southeast Asia's non-communist states. Not surprisingly, many of them did not establish diplomatic relations with Beijing until the mid-1970s.
When China and ASEAN established their dialogue 15 years ago, Beijing had barely restored diplomatic relations with Jakarta, had begun to normalize relations with Hanoi and had just established diplomatic ties with Singapore. There were strong suspicions, as well as concerns among ASEAN member states, over China's growing power and intentions toward Southeast Asia.
Beijing's assertiveness in its claims to sovereignty over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, coupled with its ongoing military buildup and the occasional use of force in asserting its territorial claims, cast a shadow over the Southeast Asian states at a time of uncertain US commitment in the region, and provided fodder for the "China threat" thesis.
China-ASEAN relations have undergone significant changes since 1991, when the ASEAN foreign ministers' summit first invited China to become a dialogue partner. By moving away from enmity and suspicion, bilateral ties have been strengthened in the areas of politics, economics and security. In 1997, China and ASEAN established the annual summit mechanism (ASEAN+1) and in 2003, they signed the Joint Declaration of a Strategic Part-nership for Peace and Prosperity.
Beijing has made great strides in assuring ASEAN of its benign intentions by participating in the ASEAN Regional Forum and embracing multilateralism, signing the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to manage territorial disputes, and acceding to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, becoming the first major power to do so.
Perhaps the most significant progress thus far lies in the growing economic ties. Two-way trade has been growing at a rate of 20 percent for the last decade to reach US$130.4 billion last year, from less than US$8 billion in 1991. Total ASEAN investments in China reached US$3.1 billion last year, while member states enjoyed a trade surplus of roughly US$20 billion.
In November 2002, China and ASEAN signed the Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation. The two sides pledged to establish a free trade agreement within 10 years, first with the original ASEAN-6 by 2010, followed by the entire ASEAN-10 by 2015. Such an agreement would constitute a common market of 1.7 billion people with a combined GDP of between US$1.5 trillion and US$2 trillion.
Over the years, China and ASEAN countries have developed defense and security ties in a number of areas, ranging from high-level visits by military and defense officials to port calls, small-scale joint military exercises, defense equipment transfers, military educational exchange programs and multilateral dialogues by senior defense and military officers. In November 2004, the first meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum Security Policy Conference was held in Beijing.