China-ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership: A Shared Future to Pursue Regional Economic Integration

For ASEAN, China is a neighboring country as well as a strategic partner in various fields, especially in the economic field. China has become ASEAN’s largest trading partner for 13 consecutive years since 2009 (Global Times, 2022).

A survey by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute of more than 1,600 ASEAN citizens found that 76.7% of them chose China as the most influential economic power in ASEAN (Heijmans , 2022). China has also emerged as an economic giant in the Asian region and is expected to overtake the United States as the world’s strongest economy by 2030 (Jennings, 2022).

This mutual relationship between China and ASEAN is growing stronger after the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) agreement. On the economic front, the CSP is being implemented in line with the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) project. Both projects are grand plans that have been prepared for economic integration and encouraging more inclusive trade between the two parties.

On the other hand, ASEAN also has a similar agenda in the region, which is to build an economic community that regulates trade and provides economic benefits to its members. The common vision between China and ASEAN certainly facilitates the process of this cooperation. So how can China and ASEAN achieve their common goals? Are there any obstacles and challenges they will face in implementing this CSP?

China-ASEAN: sharing the same economic vision

To advance its foreign policy agenda, China has paid visits to various neighboring countries in recent years. Rather than building an image of a major economic power, China is relying more on a friendly approach by promoting “a community of shared destiny” among its neighbors (Wei, 2022). As a close neighbor and strategic partner, ASEAN becomes the one with whom China wants to share the future.

For ASEAN, the BIS and RCEP itself have a goal aligned with the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). The AEC aims to promote a single market and product base, a highly competitive region, with equitable economic development (ASEAN, 2020a). Through the ACS, ASEAN is also committed to a freer movement of goods and services and facilitates the distribution of skilled labor and the movement of capital in the region (Asian Development Bank Institute, 2015).

ASEAN’s ambition to build an integrated regional economy looks promising. However, building an integrated economic ecosystem requires not only geographic proximity, but also adequate infrastructure (Donghyun et al., 2008).

Even though Southeast Asia is rich in resources and manufacturing, some regions still suffer from a lack of infrastructure and slow industrial development. Several ASEAN countries still have poor transport infrastructure. In fact, transportation is a key factor in fixing economic distribution.

At this stage, China came up with a BRI project plan that mainly prioritized large investments in transport infrastructure (Donghyun et al., 2008). This long-term project has sufficient potential to provide infrastructure and other development facilities, thereby promoting growth in the region (Iqbal et al., 2019).

The CSP also regulates the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP) which aims to broaden and deepen free trade activities between ASEAN-China, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and Australia ( “RCEP: Overview and Economic Impact”, 2020). RCEP later marks the birth of the largest FTA in the world which surely opens wider trade and market access for ASEAN.

RCEP will also help China and ASEAN forge mutually beneficial industrial chain and supply chain partnerships, also to shape more inclusive business cooperation in the future (Bo & Jing, nd). This opportunity should be an open door for the integration of ASEAN into world trade, which is also the initial mission of the ACS. May also attract other countries to locate their foreign investment in ASEAN countries (ASEAN, 2020b).

For China, the BRI and RCEP are key to strengthening China’s position in the region. China strives to build “literal and metaphorical” bridges as a connector and highway for greater influence in global politics and economics (Lockhart, 2020).

Overcome the challenge

China and ASEAN share great economic interests in the CSP agreement. This allows both parties to find a smooth path in the process of negotiation and agreement. However, in the implementation process, ASEAN and China need to be more serious and committed.

ASEAN is currently in the process of compiling the 2025 ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) Master Plan. National-level policy-making processes and practice need to be aligned in order to achieve common goals (Chen & Jye, 2022).

The Covid-19 pandemic is becoming another obstacle to achieving economic integration in the region. The pandemic is hitting ASEAN quite heavily, whose members are currently still concerned about restoring stability to the national economy. Cooperation with China is well used by ASEAN countries at the national level, such as submitting proposals for the construction of several economic infrastructures by Indonesia, encouraging digital development in Thailand, signing economic relations bilateral with Vietnam, etc. still needs to be maximized.

The DSP initiates a higher level of relationship, as evidenced by deeper cooperation, shared normative frameworks and institutionalized cooperation mechanisms, and high-level political commitment and priority of China and ASEAN ( Ha, 2022). It will be less than optimal if ASEAN sees the CSP only as a bridge to strengthen bilateral relations with China. ASEAN should see PESCO as a strategic relationship for an ideal future of regional economic integration.

To optimize the objectives common to both, mutual political trust is the basis and the guarantee (Bu, 2015). CSP does not happen overnight, building connectivity and an integrated ecosystem is a large-scale and long-term project. In order to reap the benefits of this investment and this agreement, active dialogue, healthy relations and stable growth in the education of China-ASEAN relations should be pursued by both sides.