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Speeches at the Plenary Session by Zhang Jiuhuan, Member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and former Chinese Ambassador to Thailand


Carrying Forward Mutual Trust and Cooperation

Zhang Jiuhuan

Member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and former Chinese Ambassador to Thailand




Today, as profound changes are taking place in the world situation, we are pleased to see that the relations between China and Southeast Asia develop rapidly and comprehensively.

Since China and ASEAN established dialogue-based relations in 1991, bilateral political relations have continually improved. Of all ASEAN’s dialogue partners, China was the first to sign The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, and the first to establish strategic partnership with ASEAN. China has also appointed an ambassador to ASEAN and established a permanent ASEAN mission.

China and ASEAN enjoy increasingly close bilateral economic and trade cooperation, and they have established  the largest free trade area in developing countries and created several platforms for friendly exchanges and cooperation, including the China-ASEAN Expo and the ASEAN-China Centre. Bilateral trade has increased at an annual average rate of over 20%, from less than US$10 billion in 1991 to US$362.8 billion in 2011. China has already become ASEAN’s largest trading partner, while ASEAN is China’s third largest. Mutual investment amounted to US$85.1 billion at the end of 2011, and it is currently showing a rapid upward trend.

Social and cultural exchanges between China and ASEAN are thriving. In 2011, 13.63 million visits were recorded between China and ASEAN. And 50,000 students from ASEAN countries studied in China while 70,000 Chinese students went to study in ASEAN countries. The two sides have worked together in responding to the serious challenges of the two financial crises, the SARS epidemic and the tsunami catastrophe. There is a growing trend for people to study Chinese language in Southeast Asia, and more and more Chinese students are choosing to study Southeast Asian languages.

Of course, the rapid development of China-ASEAN relations over the past 20-plus years has not merely been castles in the air, but rather the continuation of the development of ties between China and ASEAN in the previous 40 years. It is a “giant building” set up upon solid foundations.

People gathered here will not have forgotten that relations between China and Southeast Asia underwent three great stages of development. In the 1950s, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos were the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with China, which opened the door for the relations between China and Southeast Asia and broke the imperialist blockade against the New China. In the 1970s, when Southeast Asia faced the situation of a “wolf at the front door and a tiger at the back door,” China established diplomatic relations with Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, which promoted friendly relations with Southeast Asian countries and helped safeguard regional peace and stability. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, following the end of the Cold War, China established diplomatic relations with Singapore and Brunei, resumed diplomatic relations with Indonesia and normalized relations with Vietnam. To date, China has established full diplomatic relations with 10 Southeast Asian countries, and China has now taken the logical step to establish diplomatic relations with ASEAN itself.

Looking back on the history of China-ASEAN relations, there have been twists and turns, ups and downs, and trials and tribulations, and there are many important lessons to be learned. One of the most important of which is that enhancing mutual trust is the fundamental guarantee for developing relations between both sides.

Here I would like to cite two examples. Shortly after the founding of the New China, Chinese living in Southeast Asia rejoiced at the rebirth of their country of origin following a period of disaster, which western imperialists seized upon to claim that overseas Chinese were China’s “fifth column.” Adding that the Communist-led armed struggles had occurred in the Southeast Asia, some countries in the region had worried that China was supporting these forces. At that time, the Chinese government promptly introduced a law on holding single nationality, and created the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and the 10 Principles of Bandung, both of which strongly advocated non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, seeking common ground while reserving differences and peaceful coexistence, and also cut through imperialist lies, enhanced trust between Southeast Asian countries, and promoted the consolidation and development of bilateral relations.

Another example is the financial crisis in Southeast Asia happened in 1997, during which ASEAN countries suffered significant economic difficulties and even faced political and social unrest. ASEAN countries were worried for a while that the Chinese government would devalue their currency in order to stimulate exports, like some other major countries did. However, faced with this crisis, the Chinese government and people felt a sense of empathy with Southeast Asian countries, and not only kept the value of the Chinese currency RMB stable, but provided timely and effective assistance to the most affected countries, and even welcomed each country to hitch a ride with the Chinese economy, which played a positive role in the recovery and revitalization of Southeast Asian economies. A crisis would tell one’s true friends and mutual aid in the crisis enhanced trust. In 2000, when China proposed the establishment of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area, ASEAN countries responded enthusiastically. In the next year, a consensus had been reached; by the third year, the framework agreement had been signed; and within 10 years the FTA had been established and China-ASEAN relations moved to a new and higher level.

Needless to say, in the course of the rapid development of China-ASEAN relations, there have been some difficulties and problems. For example, sovereignty disputes over islands and reefs at the South China Sea have led to periods of regional tension. Some people in Southeast Asia are concerned that as China’s national strength grows, it will take a “harder line” against other countries. Some Chinese people are also suspicious that ASEAN countries are attempting to use external forces to put pressure on China. In fact, China’s stance on the disputes over the islands and reefs at the South China Sea is consistent and clear. Both in terms of history and legal principles, China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands at the South China Sea and their adjacent waters. As for some disputes with some countries, we advocate seeking solutions through equal consultations and in a peaceful way. We should set aside disputes and concentrate on common development till the issue is resolved. The parties concerned should not take any action that will complicate the matters. China is willing to work with ASEAN countries to implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and when the conditions are ripe to work out a code of conduct. China’s stance and propositions have received wide-ranging understanding and support.

Historical experience tells us that distrust usually comes from one of two sources: the first is mutual misunderstanding; the other is provocation by outsiders. It seems that the recent distrust between China and ASEAN is related to both.

How do we reduce and eliminate distrust? I think that first of all it is necessary to adopt a long-term perspective, and to view and examine the current changes in the international and regional situation from the perspective of historical development and with a broad international vision. In recent years, the economies of Asian countries have thrived, which made every people in the region to hail. However, some people are unhappy and worried that Asia’s rise will weaken their own dominance, so they sow discord among Asian countries, China and ASEAN countries with an attempt to curb the pace of progress by causing internal disputes and friction. We must be vigilant against that.

Second, eliminating distrust requires mutual trust built over a long period of time. For more than 100 years, China and Southeast Asian countries have sympathized and supported one another in the struggle to oppose foreign invasions and ultimately win national independence and their people’s liberation. Over the past half century, China and Southeast Asian countries have cooperated closely and struggled together to safeguard peace and promote development, and they have made remarkable achievements. The two sides have established a deep friendship and trust through long-term effective cooperation, and we have handled mutual differences and disputes through proper channels. On the issue of borders, China has signed land border treaties with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, as well as a demarcation agreement with Vietnam over the Beibu Gulf. We believe that fair and reasonable solutions can also be found to settle the existing disputes with relevant countries at the South China Sea.

Third, eliminating distrust also depends on increasing exchanges and communication. In recent years, exchanges between people from all walks of life in China and Southeast Asian countries increased significantly, which has greatly enhanced mutual understanding. Nevertheless, exchanges still lack breadth and depth, and there should be more such activities. Although the telecommunications industry has been experiencing rapid growth in recent years, and people from the Five Continents are interconnected and can talk to people anywhere in the world, this is still no substitute for direct contact and face-to-face talk. The more visits neighbours pay to each other, the closer they will be, and so does the relatives.

In the final analysis, maintaining peace and development as well as promoting cooperation and development are the common aspirations and in the interests of all peoples in the region. To achieve this sacred goal, China and Southeast Asia must, in the course of their close exchanges, constantly enhance mutual understanding and trust, expand and deepen cooperation, take bilateral friendly cooperation and relations to a higher level, and make new contributions to achieving the prosperity and happiness of Asian peoples.

As Chinese old poem goes, the high green mounts can never prevent the river water from flowing, the rise of new forces is inevitable and Asia’s rise is irreversible. I am convinced that Asia’s tomorrow will undoubtedly be better.