By Suthichai Yoon
China has urged members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) not to be a bystander or “a tool of major powers” to cope with the new challenges in the current global political and economic atmosphere.
“Asean should exercise its independent judgment to move this region forward. If Asean takes sides, it would lose its relevance,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying told The Nation in an exclusive interview over the weekend.
She said: “Asean has an important role to play with its tried-and-true Asean Way, as major powers are shaping their new relations in the region.”
She said relations with Asean countries are of “unquestionable priority” for China. China will continue to support Asean’s “centrality” in East Asian cooperation, she said.
Ms Fu Ying was in Bangkok over the weekend to meet Thai Foreign Ministry permanent secretary Sihasak Phuangketkeow. Thailand is to take over the role of Asean’s coordinator with China for the next three years from July this year.
She said that since the dialogue partnership was established in the early 1990s, Asean-China relations have enjoyed robust development.
“We have also encountered a lot of challenges. Yet, rather than hurting our relations, these challenges were turned into opportunities to reinforce our relations,” she explained.
Asked about the United States’ decision to “rebalance” its forces in Asia and the Pacific, the vice foreign minister said: “China has no problem accepting the US presence and its positive influence in the Asia Pacific. We welcome a constructive US role in regional affairs.”
She noted, however, that there is growing concern coming from the media and academics in China over the US’ heavy emphasis on its security agenda in the region.
“I notice that the same concern is also heard in other Asian countries as well. Some say China is the ‘elephant in the room’.
“Some others worry about a possible return to the Cold War,” she said.
The vice minister added: “As far as I can see it, maybe it’s still early to draw conclusions.”
She said that for the US, it’s in Washington’s interest to play a wider role in the region. There’s a lot more for the US to do in the region, such as in the fields of economic cooperation, culture, science and technology.
Asked whether China is concerned about Washington’s possible “containment policy” against China, she responded: “The US has loudly denied any intention to contain China. We will just take them at their words. Creating an enemy of making a self-fulfilling prophecy doesn’t seem to be a good idea.”
She said she did not believe any country could “contain” another country in the current global affairs.
“How can anyone contain 1.3 billion people of China from building better lives for themselves?” she asked.
Ms Fu Ying said China is “only half way” with industrialisation.
Its huge population means that China’s per capita GDP would remain low for a long time to come.
“We are still a developing country working hard to address the imbalances and the uncoordinated and unsustainable aspects of its economy. Imagine a country four times the population of the United States. What a strong growth engine for Asia and for the world that the modernisation process of this country would generate,” she said.
On the South China Sea disputes, the vice minister reiterated that China wants to handle the issues peacefully through direct negotiations between countries concerned.
“At the same time, we must protect China’s sovereignty and maritime rights and interests. We remain committed to working with countries concerned to reach a farsighted and wise solution,” she added.
China and Asean countries signed the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002. Central to the DOC is a commitment by all parties to “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.”
The vice minister said the two sides are also engaged in ongoing discussions on the formulation of a Code of Conduct. “This shows that safeguarding stability in the region and managing disputes appropriately remains the mainstream thinking in our region.”
She added: “We sincerely hope that China and Asean countries will keep a cool head on this issue and exercise restraint through action, and that all parties will refrain from undermining the atmosphere for peace and stability in the region.”
She pointed out that more than 80 per cent of China’s trade goes through the sea lanes in the South China Sea.
“Safety of the navigation routes is of utmost importance for China. We will do all we can to ensure peace in this part of the world,” the vice minister said.
Vice Minister Fu Ying refused to comment on the Thai-US discussions on the use of facilities at U-tapao air base by Nasa and the Pentagon, saying that she needed to learn more about the reported moves.