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China and ASEAN: Torchbearers for Free Trade

05 Dec 2016
By Dr Giovanni Di Lieto
WCES. Photo Credit: WCEForum website

Politicians, entrepreneurs and public intellectuals from Southeast Asia and beyond were brought together last month by the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute for the 8th World Chinese Economic Summit in Malacca, Malaysia.

The World Chinese Economic Summit (WCES) was created eight years ago by the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute, a leading think tank on Chinese engagement in the global economy, to link the global Chinese diaspora with the Southeast Asian region. It has since evolved into a high-level platform to advocate regional stability through the sustainable development of the New Silk Road. Speakers at this year’s summit included former heads of government such as Australia’s Kevin Rudd, Indonesia’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou and Pakistan’s Shaukat Aziz, as well as trade ministers, investors, scholars and senior diplomats.

The summit’s theme was ‘China-ASEAN: Realising Opportunities, Strengthening Partnerships’, and the underlying message that enhanced pan-Asian free trade and investment in connectivity with Europe and across the Pacific is necessary to harness the peaceful rise of China at a time of backlash against globalisation and stagnant economic growth in the West.

The WCES featured discussions on the establishment of the so-called New Maritime Silk Road in connection with the major investments in regional infrastructure through China’s One Belt One Road initiative. In particular, Ong Ka Chuan, the Malaysian second minister of trade, explained that ASEAN countries are somewhat “moving away from the World Trade Organization system due to the limitations attached to the most-favoured-nation rule”. However, he noted that the WTO fundamentals are still very much needed as the basis to link investment initiatives for a future Eurasian transport system.

The Malaysian and Thai governments are indeed pursuing shipping connectivity through China’s plan for a combined high speed railway system that would take goods between China and Europe in only 16 days. This plan is based on three land routes across Central Asia intended to revitalise the Silk Road economy and develop a newly integrated Eurasian market. The Malaysian trade minister commented that “this is the direction of world trade and economic development despite the likely failure of the Trans-Pacific Partnership”, as global trade needs will be met anyway by the ASEAN-China led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and by further integration in the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP).

Former Indonesian President Yudhoyono shared his insights on the future of Asian affairs in the aftermath of the US election. Addressing concerns about President-elect Donald Trump’s views on trade with China, Yudhoyono affirmed that “few of these policies will be actually implemented, because Trump will bring his business instincts into politics”. Yudhoyono added that “China should keep its cool and not be drawn into trade wars, as the world has expectations of China at all levels of diplomacy, security and economics”.

Regarding the future of ASEAN at this time of international political uncertainty, Yudhoyono called for Southeast Asian nations to be “resilient and continue to grow this 600 million-people market by maintaining its centrality in regional affairs”. Yudhoyono concluded that strong political connectivity and solid economic infrastructure is the only direction for ASEAN, as the “time has come to think big and outside the box for the progress of Southeast Asia”.

Addressing leadership and cooperation in a globalised world, Shaukat Aziz, former Pakistani prime minister and current board member of the influential Boao Forum, further developed Yudhoyono’s argument. Aziz explained that Asia is experiencing a “historic shift from strategic competition to strategic collaboration that is unfolding a new paradigm of regional interdependence”. Aziz added that only connectivity and interdependence can ensure global peace, hence “the world should welcome China’s rise as a force of good, because a multipolar world is much better than a unipolar one”. Aziz also shared his optimistic views on the new US president, explaining that “maybe Trump’s innovative ideas will help the world to get unstuck from shortfalls in effective leadership “. Aziz concluded that “Trump is a rational person that, when presented with the facts, will make his decisions with good business sense”.

Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd was less hopeful and conciliatory than his Indonesian and Pakistani equivalents, bluntly stating that “the West has turned inward” and abandoned “the doctrine of the golden mean, which emphasises the middle way of the government”. For Rudd, “moderation between extremes and pragmatic synthesis are the key for Asia’s future security policy”. In this perspective, Rudd stressed that only a “pan-regional institutional framework can act as a shock absorber” for unwarranted political changes and socioeconomic pressures. Rudd reminded the summit attendees that he first raised in 2008 the “concept of an Asia-Pacific community” to enable a repositioning of the global order that accommodates the rise of China in the 21st century.

Rudd’s words echo the near-unanimous interpretation of China by all summit presenters as not only an economic but also a political and cultural superpower. Particularly revealing was the discussion pursued by Michael Yeoh on China’s changing economic landscape. Yeoh and other public officials and intellectuals formulated the emerging questions that are necessary to understand the challenges and harness the opportunities of the second largest economy in the world. It was questioned if the falling Yuan (famously under Trump’s attack), the drop in the stock market and the cooling of the property market are “the new normal in China”. This new landscape raises questions about whether China can keep its program of economic reform on track or if it will instead have to “reset its economic trajectory”. Either way, the consensus of the business leaders was that China is going to “manage successfully its transition to a new normal”, with a positive impact on the Southeast Asia region, especially if it is willing to further engage with the Chinese global diaspora.

The WCES also opened the floor to important discussions on emerging social and cultural matters that surround the China-ASEAN economic cooperation. Dedicated roundtables explored new areas of economic growth and business engagement for women and young entrepreneurs in the Southeast Asian region and with the onset of the so called Fourth Industrial Revolution.

There was also a significant debate on the nature of corporate philanthropy in Asia, as the growing entrepreneurial class in China is largely based on family-owned businesses. Several fundraisers for charities and foundations operating across Asia, including Cheri Ong from the Asian Australian Foundation and Dr Giovanni Butera from The GAIA Project, discussed the best practices and growth strategies of corporate philanthropy in China and Southeast Asia. They concluded that the Asian not-for-profit sector needs to educate the family-owned business community about the socio-economic advantages of corporate philanthropy.

Dr Giovanni Di Lieto lectures in international trade law in the Bachelor of International Business program at Monash University. Previously he was a legal practitioner in Italy and a compliance specialist in the import-export sector in the US and China.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.