by Xia Fan, Ouyang Wei
BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Oct. 8 (Xinhua) -- As leaders gather here to convene the 16th ASEAN-China Summit Wednesday, upgrading the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area (CAFTA) is expected to be high on the agenda, as it is crucial to building a coming "diamond decade" in bilateral relations and a China-ASEAN community of common destiny.
The ASEAN-China Summit will be held back-to-back with the 23rd ASEAN Summit and related meetings, which will kick off here on Wednesday.
The summit also coincides with the 10th anniversary of the establishment of China-ASEAN strategic partnership. ASEAN and Chinese leaders declared the establishment of a "strategic partnership for peace and prosperity" in Bali, Indonesia on Oct. 8, 2003.
Bilateral trade has witnessed a significant increase since then. Trade between China and ASEAN amounted to 400.1 billion U.S. dollars in value last year, nearly six times of that 10 years ago. In the first half of 2013, the figure hit 210.56 billion U.S. dollars, representing a 12.2 percent increase year on year.
China is now ASEAN's largest trading partner, while ASEAN ranks as China's third-largest trading partner.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, when attending the 10th China-ASEAN Expo in Nanning, China's southwestern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, last month, spoke highly of the last decade of cooperation, dubbing it a "golden decade."
Encouraged by the positive development, Li proposed in his speech to create a "diamond decade" ahead.
"We should seek new strategic breakthroughs, constantly deepen pragmatic cooperation, and work together to upgrade the level of China-ASEAN cooperation," he said.
Li's remarks resonate loudly with regional leaders. Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, in an exclusive interview with Xinhua, said thanks to the strategic partnership, ASEAN-China ties have grown stronger.
"I am very happy to note that ASEAN-China relations are deep, strong and robust," he said.
An important part of Li's proposal is an upgraded version of CAFTA. Launched in 2010, CAFTA has become the world's largest free trade area among developing countries, covering a total population of 1.9 billion.
The premier said the Chinese side will strive to expand bilateral trade volume to 1 trillion U.S. dollars by 2020, while increasing two-way investment by 150 billion dollars in the next eight years.
"We are willing to upgrade and expand the content and scope of CAFTA agreement based on the principles of mutual benefit and common development," he said, highlighting areas of cooperation such as lowering tariff rates, cutting non-tariff-related measures, launching dialogues for a new round of service trade pledge, and pushing forward the actual opening-up for investment.
Upgrading CAFTA is a process of building an area of more free and comprehensive economic and trade cooperation, according to observers.
"The ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement, which was launched over 10 years ago, can no longer satisfy the need of rapidly growing bilateral economic and trade relations in terms of the liberalization and facilitation of trade and investment," Ma Keqing, Chinese ambassador to the Philippines, told Xinhua, adding that the scope and content of the agreement are falling behind new trends and demands of regional economic integration.
An upgraded version of CAFTA will help drive bilateral trade and investment cooperation into the next stage, she noted.
Upgrading CAFTA is a multifaceted task, which includes enhancing political mutual trust, former Chinese Ambassador to Thailand, Singapore and Nepal Zhang Jiuhuan told Xinhua.
South China Sea disputes have raised concerns that China-ASEAN relations may be affected by tensions between China and few ASEAN nations. But analysts say better economic and trade relations brought by new developments of CAFTA will lead to more communication in various fields, and hence result in a higher level of mutual trust.
Corazon H. Dichosa, an official with the Board of Investments of the Philippines, said CAFTA has been effective in promoting mutual economic benefit between China and ASEAN, and will play an important role in improving Sino-Philippine relations.
Upgrading CAFTA will also serve as a powerful catalyst for enhancing connectivity between ASEAN and China.
A more comprehensive CAFTA requires more open and inclusive integration, which means more "hardware links" such as roads, railways, water transport, aviation, telecommunication and energy, as well as "software connections" in standard systems such as information exchange, customs clearance and quality control, observers say.
In an effort to boost mutual connectivity, Chinese President Xi Jinping, in a speech to the Indonesian parliament last week, proposed to set up an Asian investment bank to provide capital support to infrastructure construction in ASEAN countries.
"China will propose the establishment of an Asian infrastructure investment bank that would give priority to ASEAN countries' needs," he said.
Boosting connectivity is now a necessary step for China and the Southeast Asian nations to deepen their cooperation, and relevant projects are in desperate need of funding from such an investment bank, analysts say.