In ASEAN talks, China pledges support in region’s pandemic fight

Jack Lau, South China Morning Post

Posted at Oct 29 2021 02:54 AM

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang speaks during the virtual ASEAN Plus Three Summit, hosted by ASEAN Summit Brunei, in Bandar Seri Begawan on October 27, 2021. ASEAN Summit 2021 host photo handout via Reuters
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang speaks during the virtual ASEAN Plus Three Summit, hosted by ASEAN Summit Brunei, in Bandar Seri Begawan on October 27, 2021. ASEAN Summit 2021 host photo handout via Reuters

China will provide 20 million yuan (US$3.1 million) for emergency medical supplies for the region and is developing a global Covid-19 data analysis platform to improve pandemic readiness in East and Southeast Asia, according to the premier.

Li Keqiang was speaking via video link at an Asean summit on Wednesday, attended by leaders of the 10 member states as well as Japan and South Korea.

He also said the region should grow its digital economy, streamline industrial chains and shift to a low-carbon economy as part of the post-pandemic recovery, and that China could help with those efforts.

“In the long term, China is willing to explore with countries in the region how policies can be coordinated and standards harmonised to allow industrial and supply chains to be developed with balance and make East Asia more competitive overall,” Li said.

China is seeking closer ties with its neighbours in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, not least because of the many foreign direct investment projects in the region under its vast Belt and Road Initiative. But territorial disputes in the South China Sea and regional security issues have marred Beijing’s relations with Asean, while the US, Japan and the European Union are also looking to forge closer alliances in the region.

On Covid-19, Li said that in addition to the funding for a reserve of medical supplies, China was working on a global platform that will use data to assess health risks, and it would push for regional exercises on pandemic preparedness, without providing further details.

Much of Li’s speech was focused on the economy, including the new regional trade pact. He said China could provide Asean governments, chambers of commerce and businesses with training and experience so they could implement the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

RCEP – the world’s largest trade pact – was signed by the Asean nations, plus China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. It is supposed to take effect in January, but that could be pushed back by ratification delays among some signatories.

“We need to make sure the agreement takes effect as soon as possible so that it can deepen free trade and achieve integration of a higher quality,” Li said.

He also pointed to China’s bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership as an indication the country would further open up – despite its “dual circulation” economic strategy that relies more on domestic demand to reduce dependence on the outside world.

However, the CPTPP’s requirements on labour rights, sustainability standards and cross-border data transfer could complicate China’s bid.

Li also said Asean should discuss policies and look at case studies on clean energy and ways to reduce carbon emissions.

He proposed members of the bloc and East Asian nations push to digitise their economies and cooperate on communications infrastructure, cloud computing and data centres, and said China could share its experience on internet governance.

“With China’s Data Security Law and Personal Information Protection Law enacted, in the spirit of mutual governance and discussion, we are willing to strengthen exchanges on issues such as internet and digital governance and cyber safety, to promote a set of rules that are open, inclusive, secure and shared,” he said.

The focus on economic cooperation has long been part of Beijing’s efforts to counter Washington in the region, said Li Mingjiang, an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

“It’s a reflection of China’s strength. China does have this ability in pushing for economic cooperation and regional integration,” he said. “It’s a niche area where China could play a leading role, because in many other areas, like security and geopolitics, it’s a lot more challenging, more difficult for China to put forth any proposal acceptable to many regional states.”

He noted that China sought to engage with Asean nations at different stages of development, including through bilateral dialogue and Beijing-initiated platforms like the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation mechanism. “It’s not just one formula that China is pushing forward. It’s arrangements or mechanisms at different levels.”

Zhang Jie, a professor with the National Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said rivalry with Washington had pushed Beijing to boost ties with its Asean neighbours, but China’s economic liberalisation and the pandemic were also factors.

She added that improving supply chains in the region was essential for Beijing’s belt and road plan.

President Xi Jinping will meet Asean leaders at a special summit in November that observers have said could see China’s ties with the bloc upgraded to a higher tier of diplomatic recognition.


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