ASEAN countries have reacted cautiously to China's call to intensify security cooperation between Beijing and ASEAN, showing that concerns linger over the intentions of Asia's largest economy despite their rapidly growing trade links with it.
In statements issued on Thursday, after the ASEAN- China Summit a day earlier, the bloc used cautious language in response to Beijing's call for an exclusive treaty between the two sides and meeting between their defence ministers, signalling ASEAN's preference for more open and inclusive deals.
"We noted with appreciation China's proposed treaty on good-neighbourliness and friendly cooperation," said the summit chairman's statement.
But, it added: "We acknowledged Indonesia's idea in having a treaty of friendship and cooperation that includes a wider Indo-Pacific region, beyond ASEAN and China."
China's proposal came as several ASEAN members are concerned about the rising power's assertiveness in the South China Sea, where territorial claims overlap, although both sides recently started talks on a code of conduct to manage tensions.
The treaty pitch was made by Premier Li Keqiang at the summit, on his first trip to the region since taking office, and comes amid a raft of overtures China has made to ASEAN countries in recent days, including enhancing a free trade deal and starting a bank to invest in infrastructure projects.
ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh told The Straits Times in an interview that the Chinese proposal for a new treaty was not something that goes counter to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, a peace pact signed by ASEAN's five founding members in 1976. China, alongside India, was the first non-member to sign it in 2003.
But that treaty, Mr Minh said, "is the cornerstone governing relations between member states and their partners". And the new proposal, while appreciated, "has to be studied carefully first".
Neither should maritime disputes alone define ASEAN's growing partnership with China, he added.