Entering a diamond decade

Entering a diamond decade
China's Premier Li Keqiang gestures as he addresses the 17th ASEAN-China Summit during the 25th ASEAN Summit in Naypyitaw November 13, 2014.

Fresh in the minds of many is the maritime spat between China and its South-East Asian neighbours last year, each laying overlapping claims on the resource-rich South China Sea.

But setting the disputes aside, ASEAN will mark 2015 as the Year of ASEAN-China Maritime Co-operation.

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researcher Xu Liping, who specialises in South-East Asian politics, summed up the maritime conflicts as "a high fever that does not recede", but noted that the overall situation was still stable despite the rivalry.

In the 17th ASEAN-China Summit in November, ASEAN has agreed to designate 2015 for maritime co-operation with China. It voiced its support for China's plan to utilise the ASEAN-China Maritime Co-operation Fund to financially support co-operation in the areas of maritime connectivity, marine science and technology, maritime scientific research, search and rescue, disaster management and navigation safety.

At the same time, ASEAN said it is committed to work towards the early conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) while observing the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).

China-ASEAN Business Council executive vice secretary-general Xu Ningning pointed out another highlight in maritime co-operation - the 21st century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) concept proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"China wants to build the MSR together with countries along the route for better communication and connectivity, and the idea is well-received by most ASEAN countries," he said.

On economic ties, data released by the General Administration of Customs showed that two-way trade between China and ASEAN reached US$432.7 billion (S$578.94 billion) from January to November 2014, a year-on-year increase of 8.4 per cent.

Bilateral trade with Malaysia, China's largest trading partner among ASEAN countries, totalled US$91.6 billion. It was a decline of 4.1 per cent compared to the corresponding period.

China and ASEAN want to push for US$500 billion and US$1 trillion of trade volume by 2015 and 2020, respectively.

Qi Jianguo, director of the Asia Pacific Research Centre in the Foundation of International Studies, pointed out that both China and ASEAN have to strive harder in order to reach the 2020 goal.

"Should the trend of single-digit growth continue, the target is hard to achieve. A double-digit growth is necessary," he said.

Meanwhile, following the appointment of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China as the renminbi clearing bank in Singapore last year, Malaysia and Thailand will also soon set up a yuan clearing bank with China.

"The move will benefit economic exchanges between ASEAN and China and help cement ASEAN's role in renminbi trading," said Singaporean embassy counsellor (economics) Irene Sim.

Malaysia, which assumes the chair of ASEAN this year, will see to the establishment of an ASEAN Economic Community, a regional economic integration goal.

Negotiations for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership between ASEAN and six countries (China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, India and New Zealand) is also expected to be concluded by the end of 2015, while China and ASEAN will also accelerate negotiations on upgrading the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area.

Moving ahead, Xu said the hot issues to keep an eye on in the region included the general elections in Myanmar, the political outlook in Thailand and Indonesia and the events leading to the Vietnamese Communist Party's 12th Congress.

There are also several key milestones to look forward to this year - China will mark 25 years of bilateral ties with Singapore, 40 years with Philippines and Thailand, and 65 years with Indonesia and Vietnam.

Separately, each nation is seeking closer ties with China, while as a whole, the region is entering into a "diamond decade" with China, a promising term used by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to describe the next level of Sino-ASEAN relationship.

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