KUALA LUMPUR -- China on Nov 21 pledged infrastructure loans totaling $10 billion to Southeast Asian countries and proposed railway and production capacity cooperation amid closer partnership with the economically converging region.
Premier Li Keqiang announced the financing, which is expected to boost regional connectivity, as he addressed a meeting between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Malaysia, rotating chair of the 10-member bloc this year.
The relationship between China and ASEAN, which transcends bilateral ties, said Premier Li, is increasingly becoming an important cornerstone for peace, stability and development in East Asia.
The Premier called on both sides to consolidate the basis for their cooperation by enhancing mutual trust, seeking common ground, setting aside differences and expanding their common interests.
In a six-pronged proposal, Premier Li urged China and ASEAN to strengthen institution building for the cooperation between and joint development of the two giant economies by implementing their new five-year action plan and the 2+7 (two political consensus and seven areas of cooperation) framework with ASEAN proposed by China in 2013.
The Premier called on the two sides to fast-track the upgrading of their economic and trade cooperation so as to promote regional integration.
He urged the two sides to speed up talks on upgrading the China-ASEAN free trade agreement (FTA) to further enhance trade facilitation in order to achieve $1 trillion in bilateral trade by 2020. The China-ASEAN FTA, the largest-ever among developing countries, was signed in 2004.
The two economies should also work fast to conclude negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) at an early date, he added.
Commenting on the regional connectivity, Premier Li said that China will continue advancing the construction of the pan-Asia railway network and do its best to start construction of the railways linking China and Thailand and China and Laos by the end of this year.
Seven out of the 10 ASEAN members are continental or maritime neighbors of China. Trade and economic ties have grown closer between the two sides.
Statistics show that China remains ASEAN’s biggest trading partner while ASEAN is China’s third largest trading partner. Bilateral trade reached nearly $400 billion in the first 10 months of this year.
The China-ASEAN meeting came as the ASEAN community, the first sub-regional community in Asia, is expected to take shape by the end of this year, which Premier Li hailed as “a milestone in regional integration.”
The Premier told the meeting that his country looks forward to building synergy between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and ASEAN members’ respective development strategies to promote regional integration.
The Premier also called on China and ASEAN to explore production capacity cooperation in areas including infrastructure construction, engineering machinery, electricity, building material, telecommunication and industrial parks to give full play to each others’ competitive edges and achieve win-win results.
Premier Li called on the two sides to lift their security cooperation level by strengthening teamwork in non-traditional security fields such as transnational crime, terrorism and disaster relief.
China hosted the first informal meeting of China-ASEAN defense ministers this year. Premier Li said that his country stands ready to institutionalize the meeting with ASEAN at an early date.
He also urged China and ASEAN to seize the opportunity of the “ China-ASEAN maritime cooperation year” this year to continue pushing forward their maritime cooperation.
China is willing to enhance cooperation with ASEAN in areas including agricultural capacity building, environmental protection and people-to-people exchange to consolidate bilateral relations, according to the Premier.
He said that by the end of this year, mutual visits between China and ASEAN countries are expected to exceed 20 million.
China was the first country to establish a strategic partnership with ASEAN and the first non-ASEAN signatory to ink the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Next year marks the 25th anniversary of the China-ASEAN dialogue partnership.
ASEAN leaders stressed that the shared interests between China and ASEAN are much more than their differences.
The remarks came as China and some ASEAN countries are entangled in territory disputes on the South China Sea.
Premier Li said freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in line with international laws had never been hindered and that his country was willing to quickly conclude with ASEAN countries the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea on the basis of consensus.
In recent years, the South China Sea disputes, which should have been settled only by the countries directly involved through negotiation, have been hyped up as an issue of peace, stability and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, Premier Li said, noting the high-profile interventions by some countries outside the region.
“That is in nobody’s interest,” said the Premier.
“Only by expanding our common interests and seeking common ground can we narrow our differences,” Premier Li added.
ASEAN leaders agreed that differences should be properly handled through peaceful dialogue with China and they would not let some individual problems affect the bigger picture of China-ASEAN relations.
ASEAN, founded in 1967, consists of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.