BEIJING — Premier Li Keqiang on Nov 12 left for an official visit to the Philippines, where he will attend an annual meeting with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), among other programs.
Given the joint efforts of China and ASEAN over the past year to expand their consensus and manage differences, the Premier will feel greater ease at this year’s East Asia summits, observers say.
STRONGER COOPERATION IN EAST ASIA
During his five-day stay in Philippine capital Manila, the Premier’s tight schedule will include attendance at the 20th China-ASEAN (10+1) leaders’ meeting, the 20th ASEAN-China, Japan and South Korea (10+3) leaders’ meeting, as well as the 12th East Asia Summit. The objective of all these events is to boost regional cooperation in East Asia.
As the world economy faces a multitude of challenges with the West leaning toward unilateralism and trade protectionism, East Asian countries however have steadily advanced regional cooperation and maintained strong momentum of regional growth, Ruan Zongze, executive vice president of China Institute of International Studies, said.
Within East Asia, the interaction between China and ASEAN is exemplary. Since the two sides forged a dialogue relationship in 1991, their ties have progressed, entering a period of maturity.
Developing ties with ASEAN is a priority of China’s peripheral diplomacy and the regional bloc too considers China a reliable partner. In 2016, their bilateral trade surpassed $452 billion while accumulated two-way investment exceeded $185 billion.
A positive signal for regional cooperation is the stabilization of the South China Sea situation, creating a favorable environment for China and ASEAN to build closer ties and deepen cooperation.
At the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in August, China and ASEAN countries drew up the framework of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea and adopted it, announcing they would initiate substantive consultations on the code’s text within the year.
In a joint communiqué, ASEAN foreign ministers acknowledged the improved situation in the South China Sea over the past year and said the bloc anticipates “a higher level” of strategic partnership with China.
CHINESE WISDOM FOR REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT
This is the Premier’s first overseas trip following the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in October.
He will give a briefing on the spirit of the congress, China’s major country diplomacy in the new era, and China’s policy and stance on East Asian cooperation, Assistant Foreign Minister Chen Xiaodong said at a news conference ahead of the visit.
Premier Li will also propose nearly 30 new initiatives to deepen practical cooperation on interconnectivity, food security, poverty reduction, tourism and anti-corruption, Chen added.
These proposals promote the alignment of the Belt and Road Initiative with ASEAN’s development strategies. ASEAN members are looking forward to participating in the initiative, which comprises a Silk Road Economic Belt and a 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road, to expand the scope and dimension of bilateral cooperation.
A Malaysian government report released last month said the Belt and Road Initiative will enhance ASEAN’s integration and connectivity strategies and bring about mutual benefits for all participating countries.
He will also attend the leaders’ meeting on Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free-trade pact involving the 10 ASEAN members and six other countries — China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
The 16 RCEP participating countries account for almost half of the world’s population, and contribute over a quarter of its exports and some 30 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP).
Given the setback to negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other regional free trade deals, more and more countries are looking at the RCEP, Zhai Kun, a professor of international relations with Peking University, said.
China is promoting the RCEP, which shows its resolve to promote regional cooperation in East Asia, Zhai added.
“GOLDEN ERA” OF BILATERAL RELATIONS
Premier Li’s visit to the Philippines is the first by a Chinese Premier in a decade. The Philippines is China’s friendly neighbor and an important partner, yet bilateral relations were once overshadowed by a South China Sea arbitration dispute initiated by the previous Philippine government.
In October last year, the new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte paid a visit to China, putting bilateral ties back on track. The two countries have since enjoyed frequent high-level exchanges and closer economic and trade ties.
China is now the Philippines’ largest trading partner. In the first seven months of 2017, bilateral trade reached $27.86 billion, an increase of 7.6 percent year on year, according to Zhao Jianhua, Chinese ambassador to the Philippines.
The two nations have ushered in a “golden era” of bilateral relations, Zhao said.
During his visit, Premier Li will hold talks with Duterte and exchange views on regional and international issues of common concern. The two sides are expected to sign cooperation documents on infrastructure, industrial zones and assistance to the Philippines to promote bilateral comprehensive cooperation.
The visit is expected to “advance bilateral ties in a new era and promote building a new type of international relations as well as a community of shared future for mankind,” Assistant Foreign Minister Chen said.