China-ASEAN Expo boosts post-pandemic regional economic revival
By Li Wenhan  ·  2023-09-26  ·   Source: NO.39 SEPTEMBER 28, 2023
The 20th China-ASEAN Expo at Nanning International Convention and Exhibition Center in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, on September 17 (XINHUA)

A sprawling bazaar is filled with the scents of spices, perfumes and freshly ground coffee. Brightly colored carpets catch the eye. In the middle of the scene is an unexpected sight: a sleek, single-engine turboshaft helicopter on the ground. Nearby, visitors don exoskeleton robots that allow them to effortlessly lift up to 25 kg.

The transition between these two scenes may appear rather abrupt, but both existed side by side at the 20th China-ASEAN Expo (CAEXPO) and China-ASEAN Business and Investment Summit which were held from September 16 to 19 in Nanning, capital of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, the permanent host city of the two annual events.

Since their inception, the expo and the summit have jointly constituted a platform for China's opening up to Southeast Asia and its cooperation with countries in the region.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an intergovernmental organization the primary objective of which is the promotion of economic growth and regional stability among its (currently) 10 member states: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Viet Nam.

Themed Working Together for a Harmonious Home and a Shared Future—Promoting High-Quality Development of the Belt and Road and Building an Epicenter of Growth, its message this year was conveyed through the hibiscus-shaped main venue and hundreds of booths and exhibits. This year's CAEXPO showcased an upward trend in economic cooperation and people-to-people exchanges between China and ASEAN countries.

"Don't forget to get a map at the entrance, or you might get lost in this maze," a netizen by the name of Ni Qiu wrote on Xiaohongshu (Little Red Book), a wildly popular Chinese lifestyle and e-commerce app, after visiting the event.

Connecting the dots

China-ASEAN cooperation began in 1991. Three years later, China joined the ASEAN Regional Forum, the first Asia-Pacific multilateral forum for official consultations on peace and security issues in the region. The Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation was signed at the Sixth China-ASEAN Leaders' Meeting in 2002. One of its main features was the agreement on a China-ASEAN free trade area (FTA).

"As economic cooperation became an important part of China-ASEAN engagement, it called for a platform with a focus on trade and finance between the two sides and improving mutual trust and friendship. Therefore, the CAEXPO came into being," Xu Ningning, Chairman of the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) Industry Cooperation Committee and Executive President of the China-ASEAN Business Council, told China News Service, a Beijing-based news agency.

Signed in November 2020, the RCEP is an FTA between the 10 ASEAN member states and five Asia-Pacific partners—Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea. With the 15 participants representing one third of the world's GDP, it is the world's largest free trade deal.

"The 20-year-old China-ASEAN Expo remains an eventful annual affair that provides a carnival-like marketplace for the entrepreneurs from China, ASEAN and beyond," Ong Tee Keat, President of the Belt and Road Initiative Caucus for Asia Pacific (BRICAP), told Beijing Review. "Nonetheless, there's still ample room for an injection of fresh ideas to keep the expo abreast with the changing times and market dynamics."

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), first proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, aims to boost connectivity along and beyond the ancient Silk Road routes. It had attracted the participation of 152 countries and 32 international organizations as of August this year, including all ASEAN members.

At the opening ceremony of the expo and the summit on September 17, Chinese Premier Li Qiang said China remains committed to its fundamental state policy of opening up and will keep making efforts to create an enabling business environment that provides a safe, secure and pleasant experience to investors from all countries. "When the world order and geopolitical conditions are unstable, honesty and faithfulness are especially precious," he noted.

This year, the four-day CAEXPO hosted nearly 2,000 companies from 45 countries and regions. Deals for 470 projects were signed during the event, with a total investment of $66.8 billion, an increase of 18 percent over last year. More than 65 percent of this investment came from deals in the manufacturing sector.

Negotiate, cooperate

Since the BRI's launch 10 years ago, China and ASEAN countries have prioritized trade and infrastructure connectivity, as well as production capacity cooperation.

"The successful implementation of several landmark projects of the BRI in ASEAN countries is a good testimony to the maturity of China-ASEAN lasting relations," Ong said. He further noted that the inauguration of the China-Laos Railway is remarkable in transforming Laos, a landlocked ASEAN member state, into a land-linked nation and reshaping the connectivity of the entire ASEAN peninsula.

In parallel, Ong continued, the completion of the Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Rail will make Indonesia—ASEAN's largest economy—the first ASEAN member state to have a high-speed rail link.

"Similarly, the ongoing East Coast Rail Link project in Malaysia, scheduled for completion by late 2027, is poised to transform the economic backwater in the eastern coast states of peninsular Malaysia into a promising growth area through east-west connectivity across the peninsula," he added.

On September 16, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, who was in Nanning for the CAEXPO and the China-ASEAN Business and Investment Summit, met with leaders of China's leading enterprises in technology, energy and infrastructure development. Receiving Lin Baifeng, Asia-Pacific President of Huawei, Chinh congratulated and thanked the Chinese tech firm for its trust and successful business in Viet Nam and expressed his hopes for Huawei's deeper involvement in the country's digital economy construction.

Mutual trust

American President Joe Biden undertook his first state visit to Viet Nam on September 10, during which the two countries announced the elevation of bilateral relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership. Attaining comprehensive strategic partnership status will rank the United States as equivalent to China in Viet Nam's hierarchy of diplomatic relationships.

Ong pointed out that ASEAN is an ideal target for the United States as the superpower seeks to "insulate, isolate and alienate" China from its partner neighbors. In the face of rising tensions between China and the U.S., most ASEAN member states are leaning toward the hedging strategy of increasingly intertwining their economic interests with China while placing their security bets on the U.S. In addition, ASEAN also learned the "bitter lesson of a pandemic-induced disruption of the supply chain," according to him.

Considering these concerns, Ong said China, being well-equipped with a full range of industrial systems, is still a better bet to cushion the impact of supply chain disruptions in comparison to other RCEP partners.

China has proposed advancing talks with ASEAN on a free trade area version 3.0. Xu said as the requirements for the development of the digital economy, green economy and other sectors increase, a free trade area version 3.0 becomes necessary. Version 1.0 was primarily centered on enhanced cooperation between China and ASEAN, while version 2.0 concentrated on expanded openness under the BRI.

Plus, China's dedication to creating a community with a shared future for humanity is not just a philosophical ideal "but an achievable objective within the context of China-ASEAN cooperation, serving as the driving force behind the BRI's implementation," according to Ong.

As the engagement goes beyond infrastructure development that is underpinning the economic dimension of cooperation, "the need is particularly pronounced in the aspects of sociocultural and people-to-people connectivity that are instrumental in trust and confidence building," he concluded.

(Print Edition Title: Contacts and Contracts)

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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