by Chen Jipeng
SINGAPORE, Dec. 19 (Xinhua) -- Chinese leaders made headlines in the past few months not only by unveiling a robust reform agenda, but also with their efforts to strengthen ties with neighboring countries, especially the Southeast Asian nations.
The key message was the pursuit of shared security and prosperity between China and its neighbors, scholars said.
Addressing the Indonesian parliament in early October, Chinese President Xi Jinping said he would like to see China working together with Indonesia and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to make "good neighbors, friends and partners that would share prosperity and security and stick together through thick and thin."
"By making joint efforts, we will build a more closely knit China-ASEAN community of shared destiny so as to bring more benefits to both China and ASEAN and to the people in the region," he said.
Xi, who took office as China's top leader in March, once again extended the message of pursuing shared prosperity through mutually beneficial cooperation at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit during a week-long tour that also took him to Malaysia.
During his trip, Xi made a number of commitments, with a focus on deliverables such as trade and infrastructure.
He said China would further open up its market to ASEAN, with a target of increasing trade volume with ASEAN to 1 trillion U.S. dollars by 2020 from 400 billion dollars in 2012. He also proposed to establish an Asian Infrastructure Development Bank to help countries in the region develop much-needed infrastructure like roads and railways.
He said China would make more efforts to boost connectivity in the Asia Pacific region and maritime cooperation with ASEAN nations.
"The message sent by the Chinese leadership, including the president, the premier and the foreign minister, is clear: China, as a major power, is committed to pursuing win-win cooperation with its neighbors," said Huang Jing, director of the Center on Asia and Globalization at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.
Huang said the message seemed to contain three parts. The first was China wants to work with its neighbors to promote regional development. "China sees itself and its neighbors as depending on each other for shared fortunes, good or bad," he said.
The second part was China wants to be a power making peace instead of instability in the region, and China would like to see itself and its neighbors working together, as partners on an equal footing, to safeguard stability, he said.
Huang said it was also clear China wants to see all the parties cooperating with one another for the benefit of the region, and that it does not want to see any major powers from outside the region encouraging trouble-making for their perceived interests on certain disputed issues.
"China does not want to see countries that are not directly involved make trouble in the region by encouraging louder voices on the disputes, and it does not want to see its Southeast Asian neighbors used by such external powers," Huang said.
The idea of shared security and prosperity was key, because it showed China's understanding by calling for concerted efforts by its neighbors to safeguard regional stability, Huang said. It implies respect for each other as equal partners in the pursuit of shared prosperity, he said.
Xi said: "We should respect each other's right to independently choose their own social system and development path, as well as each other's efforts to explore and pursue economic and social development and improve people's lives."
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang built on Xi's effort with a subsequent tour to Brunei for the East Asia summit before traveling to Thailand and Vietnam.
In Brunei, Li reaffirmed a pledge to complete negotiations by 2015 on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade agreement involving ASEAN and six of its trade partners.
During his visit to Southeast Asia, he emphasized China's growth brought benefit to its neighbors and made commitments covering such areas as investment, energy, agriculture, infrastructure and maritime cooperation, calling for efforts to "plant more flowers, not thorns."
Chinese leaders did not dodge the South China Sea issue, where there are differences, but laid out principles to manage the disputes and expressed China's willingness to join talks on a code of conduct.
"The South China Sea issue is only a small part of the overall relations between China and some of its neighboring countries. It should not be a barrier to China's pursuit of common development with ASEAN on the whole," said Chen Youjun, a research fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.
Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, also a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, followed up with a visit to Singapore, which is now the third largest source of foreign direct investment for the Chinese mainland.
The island city state of 5.4 million people is also the mainland's second largest trading partner and third largest export market within the ASEAN countries.
"The overall message of these trips was one Xi highlighted in his keynote speech at the APEC Economic Leaders' Summit: China cannot develop without the Asia-Pacific and the Asia-Pacific cannot prosper without China," Phuong Nguyen, a research associate with the United States-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a comment.
Leaders of the Southeast Asian nations, including Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, have been receptive to the principles outlined by Chinese leaders.
While Nguyen saw China's "growing confidence in its ability to use economic leverage to craft policy toward ASEAN," other scholars said they believed ASEAN nations saw China's rise as an opportunity that benefited their people.
"Half of our (diplomatic) activity centers on economic cooperation, so China has a big advantage to work with ASEAN on economic cooperation," he said.
China's effort to boost its ties with neighboring countries is also strategically aimed at building a peaceful environment for itself. It is also in line with the historical trend of peace, cooperation and enhanced connectivity in a globalized world.
Huang said most of the Southeast Asian nations knew China was not the one that provoked tensions, though they remained suspicious whether a stronger China would exert more pressure on them.
It is necessary for China to continue to be soft while defending its legitimate interests, he said.
China's efforts to grow economic ties also fit in with its call for efforts to upgrade the China-ASEAN free trade agreement. And efforts to boost connectivity are needed, too.
In response to a question on how China can improve its ties with ASEAN, Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, put it very simply, "build the (China-ASEAN) high-speed railway."