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China-ASEAN Relations: Perspectives, Prospects, and Implications for U.S. Interests

China-ASEAN Relations: Perspectives, Prospects, and Implications for U.S. Interests - Cover

Authored by Dr. Jing-dong Yuan.

October 2006

83 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The author traces the evolution of China-ASEAN relations since the early 1990s and examines some of the key factors that have contributed to the positive developments in bilateral ties. He describes and analyzes how China and ASEAN have managed the territorial disputes through negotiation and compromises; looks at the expanding economic ties between China and ASEAN member states and examines the politico-strategic, as well as economic rationales for establishing a free trade area; and evaluates the emerging yet still limited defense and security ties between the two. He also assesses the implications of the growing China-ASEAN ties for U.S. interests in the region.


Since the mid-1990s, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have developed a growing partnership in security cooperation, economic/trade interdependence, and the development and sharing of “Asian values.” Compared to the late 1980s and early 1990s when Beijing had yet to establish or normalize diplomatic relations with key ASEAN member states and when the concerns over the “China threat” both drove Southeast Asia’s armament and military buildup and were the major rationale for initiating a regional security arrangement to keep the United States engaged, the current state of China-ASEAN relationship is truly remarkable. While a China and Southeast Asia living in harmony contributes to regional peace, stability, and prosperity and minimizes the potential for conflicts over unresolved territorial disputes, the future direction of this relationship nevertheless could have major implications for longterm U.S. interests in the region, especially if it evolves into a competitive and even exclusive regional trading bloc and a geo-strategic arrangement under the shadow of a growing and more assertive China.

This monograph describes the evolving China-ASEAN relationship over the past 15 years and examines the key elements of this relationship in the areas of economic/trade interdependence, security dialogue and cooperation, Chinese diplomacy in expanding influence in the region, China-ASEAN efforts in managing the unresolved territorial disputes, and the ASEAN member states’ continuing concerns about and the hedging strategy against an ever growing China. Three underlying themes are interwoven with the discussions of both chronological developments and major issues in this study. The first describes Beijing’s post-Tiananmen diplomatic offensive: a good neighborly policy of establishing and restoring diplomatic ties with key ASEAN member states. It assesses how the changing environments at both the international and regional levels drove Chinese foreign and security policy during the initial post-Cold War period where the disintegration of the former Soviet Union effectively had reduced the utility of the “China Card” and hence its strategic importance in the strategic triangle. A more focused Asia policy of necessity led to greater attention to Southeast Asia.

The second theme relates to how ASEAN, alarmed by Beijing’s growing military buildup and the assertive irredentism regarding the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, sought to both keep the United States engaged in the region’s security arrangements and socialize a China that remained suspicious of multilateralism and the concepts of cooperative security, dialogue processes, and Track-II initiatives. Through the ASEAN Post-Ministerial Meetings and the establishment of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the Southeast Asian nations were able to socialize, assure, and obtain assurance from China that the ASEAN Way could be the model for developing regional security institutions. At the same time, from the mid-1990s onward was also the period that saw increasing economic ties between the two and, in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, China’s position as a major market and source of low-cost production became more important to the recovery and sustainability of the Southeast Asian economy.

The third highlights the major developments over the past 5 years where the political, economic, and strategic elements of China-ASEAN have become even more pronounced in the forms of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area, the ASEAN +3 process, and China’s accession to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and the signing of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. It examines the key factors driving these developments and speculates on their long-term impact on the transformation of the region’s geo-strategic and geoeconomic landscapes and the implications for U.S. interests in the region. In particular, the monograph discusses the ASEAN states’ lingering unease over China’s growing power and their hedging strategies, including continued and even intensified security ties with the United States.

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