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"Questions on China’s Friendship Treaty Proposal", a Commentary by Tang Siew Mun

Commentary 2016/63, 16 September 2016

The 19th ASEAN-China Summit held on 7 September 2016 was dedicated to commemorating the 25th anniversary of the ASEAN-China dialogue relations, which culminated in the release of a Joint Statement. The 1,205 word document reaffirmed the basic principles of the bilateral relations and reflected on the achievements of the past year, including the establishment of a hotline among senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials to handle maritime emergencies in the South China Sea and the adoption of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea in the South China Sea. The two sides also agreed to designate 2017 as the ASEAN-China Year of Tourism Cooperation.

However, one notable development was left out of the media cycle in the summit reporting. Premier Li Keqiang was reported to have “raised a five-point proposal for furthering the development of China-ASEAN relations.” Interestingly, Premier Li’s proposal was not covered by the Lao or international media, and only came into view following reports by the Chinese media outlets such as Xinhua, Global Times and CCTV America which quoted the official release by China’s State Council.

The five-point proposal calls for:

(a) upgrading China-ASEAN relations by reinforcing the alignment of development goals and path;
(b) building of a new platform for political security cooperation;
(c) nurturing the new impetus to trade and economic cooperation;
(d) boosting cultural cooperation; and
(e) jointly enhancing regional cooperation.

The fact that there was a news “blackout” on the proposal is puzzling. While the proposal is hardly new in every sense of the word, it should nevertheless merit a mention. A Google search on the proposal came up empty except from the Chinese sources listed above. Did Premier Li’s media team dropped the ball? Why did the proposal, which was supposed have been presented at the ASEAN-China Summit, not even find itself into the summit’s Joint Statement as a “noted” item?

Of the five points, the call for a “new platform for political security cooperation,” which was made in clear reference to the Treaty of Good Neigbourliness, Friendship and Peace” stands out for different reasons.

First, the proposal has gain little traction since it was proposed by Premier Li in Bandar Seri Begawan at the ASEAN-China Summit in 2013. With ASEAN’s apparent lack of interest, why is China persisting with this initiative?

Second, Premier Li linking the treaty to “providing a legal protection for bilateral ties” is an interesting statement in and of itself. Notwithstanding China’s high-profile nose-thumbing at international law in the case of the Arbitral Tribunal award on the Philippines v China on the South China Sea, it is essential to seek clarification from Beijing what “legal protection” entails.

Third, the treaty could be beneficial to ASEAN, at least in theory. However, in reality it would be a commitment between unequals given the power asymmetry between the two parties? What is ASEAN’s recourse if China breaks the treaty?

Fourth, what additional benefits would the treaty provide that is not already enshrined in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), of which ASEAN member states and China are signatories? Will the proposed treaty diminish ASEAN centrality by shifting the political-diplomatic basis of the ten member organisation’s from the TAC to the new treaty?

If the proposed treaty were to have any chance of acceptance, it would have to get over the South China Sea hurdle.  Notions of “good neighbours” and “peace” ring hollow as long as the South China Sea remains a ticking time-bomb. If China cannot bring itself to commit to a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, what moral force and credibility can it bring to the proposed treaty?

Dr Tang Siew Mun is Head of the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.