China-ASEAN relations, with their massive Free Trade Area in the limelight, have largely been touted in economic and trade facet, but the other side of the coin is a flourishing partnership in other areas, in a bid to enhance mutual trust and all-round cooperation.
Almost two years after the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (ACFTA) came into effect on Jan. 1, 2010, bilateral trade is in full swing. The ACFTA is the largest free trade area in terms of population and third largest in nominal GDP, trailing the European Economic Area and North American Free Trade Area.
China-ASEAN economic cooperation has never been more dynamic and fruitful, as China has become ASEAN's largest trading partner and ASEAN remains China's third largest trading partner with an average annual growth rate of more than 20 percent and had grown 37 times over the past two decades.
Besides, China was the first outside power to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) with the ASEAN, the first to establish strategic partnership for peace and prosperity with the ASEAN, and the first to back the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone. China and the ASEAN have elevated the status of their relationship from dialogue partnership to strategic partnership in two decades.
The two sides have cooperated closely in anti-terrorism, combating illegal migration, drug control and law enforcement. The second bilateral Dialogue on Defense and Security between China and 10 ASEAN states was held in Beijing on Dec. 11-14, 2011, with topics like setting up mutual trust mechanism between China and the ASEAN in the framework of regional multilateral security mechanism and furthering cooperation in addressing non-traditional security challenges on the table.
One day ahead of the Dialogue, the police forces of China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand started their coordinated patrol along the violence-troubled Mekong River to crack down on cross-border crime and secure shipping, following the brutal killing of 13 Chinese sailors on the river in October.
These moves are crucial for boosting understanding and mutual trust, said Ma Ying, a researcher at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies. Regarded as a close "giant", China's remarkable rise of national strength and international profile since the reform and opening-up made some in the regional bloc uneasy and wary.
China and the ASEAN need to work to increase mutual trust and defuse skepticism. For China, it needs to further show its willingness to share peace, development and opportunities brought by China's growth. For ASEAN, it needs to accommodate China and understand China's growth contributes to regional stability rather than vice versa, Ma said.
As part of the efforts to foster mutual understanding, China and the ASEAN decided to place cultural exchanges a priority for cooperation since 2005, leading to a boom of exhibitions, language training programs, tourism and sporting events. Both sides aim to double the number of students studying in each other's universities to 100,000 by 2020. Courses of ASEAN languages are opened in dozens of Chinese universities, while Chinese is taught at more than 30 Confucius Institutes in ASEAN countries.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced at the 14th China-ASEAN Summit on Nov. 18 in Bali, Indonesia, three proposals to enhance bilateral cooperation in non-economic areas, including expanding practical maritime cooperation by establishing a three billion yuan (472.6 million U.S. dollars) China-ASEAN cooperation fund; advancing cooperation in science, technology and sustainable development in 2012, such as in green economy, energy conservation and renewable energy; promoting cooperation related to people's well-being, such as vocational training, disaster management and traditional medicine.
China and the ASEAN are also taking a more pragmatic and sensible approach in handling some sensitive issues, the most recent involving South China Sea, a longstanding wedge between China and some of the claimants in the ASEAN. China long proposes to shelve differences and seek joint development, and has signed with the ASEAN the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002, which led to the agreement on the guidelines of implementation of DOC in July this year. Emphasizing peaceful settlement based on consultations, relevant parties agree to cooperate in maritime protection, search and rescue, as well as transnational crime busting.
Observers say the consensus on guidance of implementation sends a positive signal to maintain peace and stability on the South China Sea, a gesture of increased mutual trust between China and ASEAN.
Over the past 20 years, bilateral relations between China and the ASEAN have been very productive and comprehensive, going very fast in all areas, Surin Pitsuwan, the ASEAN Secretary General, said at a press briefing in November.
"I think we have to bring more awareness to our people, 1.3 billion Chinese and 600 million in ASEAN, about the rich potential and opportunities that we have between ourselves. That also requires efforts from both sides to convince our people that they can benefit from the special relationship we have," the Secretary General added.