In recent years, trade conflicts between China and the United States have intensified. While most ASEAN countries adhere to the foreign policy of "major power balance", some countries also show a phased bias towards China. Because English is the medium for ASEAN countries, most people rely on English for foreign news. Under the influence of western media, western inherent prejudices against China have been transferred to ASEAN countries, for example, some international medias think that China's commitment to give the Mekong river basin countries priority for COVID - 19 vaccine is a kind of "Vaccine Diplomacy". As a result, some people have formed a distorted or erroneous view that the purpose of China's closeness with ASEAN is to disintegrate it, thus concerns about China's "de-Aseanization" is rising.
Frankly speaking, ASEAN has played a limited role in promoting regional co-operation, particularly economic co-operation, so whether the ASEAN Way and its ASEAN Centrality can be maintained or not becomes a challenge.
The ASEAN Consensus Principle is one of the basic decision-making principles and also the key to maintain the internal stability of ASEAN. This principle also provides the possibility for countries outside the region to disintegrate ASEAN. However, China and ASEAN countries have been always maintaining a win-win relationship, so it is no need to worry about that. China’s support for ASEAN internal unity and leading role in regional cooperation is conducive to the development of ASEAN countries and is also beneficial to China's national interests.
China and ASEAN countries live side by side and enjoy great potential for cooperation. Since the 1990s, China and Southeast Asian countries have built a basic network of political mutual trust through bilateral arrangements and multilateral mechanisms. In particular, after the 10+3 Summit in 1997, China and ASEAN had set the direction and guiding principles of "Good-neighborly Partnership of Mutual Trust towards the 21st Century", and the level of cooperation was comprehensively enhanced. China and ASEAN countries signed bilateral political, economic, cultural, diplomatic and other cooperation framework agreements one by one, and established a Free Trade Area in 2010. Since then, cooperation has been successful in dealing with public health emergencies, such as COVID-19, and in combating drug production and smuggling, etc..
Based on the mutual political trust between China and ASEAN countries, economic and trade cooperation have been developing rapidly. In 1991, the trade volume between China and ASEAN was only 8.408 billion US dollars. In 2008, that figure soared more than 26-fold to $231.12 billion. In 2019, the China- ASEAN trade volume reached $641.5 billion, increased by 9.2%, faster than the average growth of China's top three trading partners (the European Union, asean, and the United States) . With ASEAN’s increased proportion in China's foreign trade, it becomes China's second largest trade partner, highlighting the bilateral economic and trade cooperation potential and vitality.
For China, a united, stable and prosperous ASEAN is in accord with national interest, so China is not a threat to ASEAN, but a partner for win-win cooperation. Through participating in various formal and informal regional diplomacy of ASEAN, China has begun to recognize the practice of multilateralism. Asean's achievements in multilateralism with Oriental characteristics formed in long-term regional cooperation have played a great role in China's understanding, practice and confidence in multilateral diplomacy.
The view that China will be a threat for disintegrating ASEAN is strategically short-sighted, historically untenable, and politically misguided.
If the fragmentation of Southeast Asia results from the disintegrating of ASEAN, the region will be a disrupt one, more vulnerable than it is now and more vulnerable to outside intervention. A stable and developing ASEAN after expansion means further improvement of a strategic environment and political harmony and stability in the South for China.
ASEAN countries have deep cultural ties with China, and China's development has brought tangible benefits to ASEAN countries. China takes ASEAN as a priority in its neighborhood diplomacy, supports ASEAN's development and growth, supports building the ASEAN community, and supports ASEAN's leading role in regional cooperation. China is committed to develop sound, stable and dynamic China-ASEAN relation. This not only serves the common interests of both sides, but also contributes to regional peace, stability and prosperity.
Therefore, China's development brings benefits, opportunities rather than threats to ASEAN countries. China and ASEAN should further enhance political mutual trust, deepen practical cooperation, share development opportunities, and build a community of shared future, interests and responsibilities.
(Xiaomei Zhou, professor, Yunnan University of Finance and Economics; Youlan Tian, scholar,Yunnan University of Finance and Economics)