Academic journal article International Journal of China Studies

The Role of Trust in China-ASEAN Relations – towards a Multi-Level Trust Building for China and ASEAN

Academic journal article International Journal of China Studies

The Role of Trust in China-ASEAN Relations – towards a Multi-Level Trust Building for China and ASEAN

Article excerpt

"It's a vice to trust all, and equally a vice to trust none."

- Seneca's Letters to Lucilius


In recent years, China-ASEAN relations were getting more or less complicated and hard to comprehend. On one hand, China and ASEAN countries have established strong political and economic ties. In 2003, China and ASEAN declared the formation of a bilateral strategic partnership. Then, the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (ACFTA) came into being in 2010, which was the first free trade area between China and foreign countries with the largest population in the world. And with the rapid economic growth, China and its Southeast Asian neighbours have benefited a lot from the increasing volume of trade and investment. From 1991 to 2015, the bilateral trade volume between China and ASEAN has increased from 6,300 million to 472,000 million US dollars. China is now the No. 1 trade partner of ASEAN. Everything seems to be thriving and promising. On the other hand, observers of both sides realize that the "Rise of Chin?" is a double-edge sword with ambivalent meaning - not only chances for further growth and development, but also "challenges" to be managed.

In the eyes of ASEAN member states, walking with a growing giant would never be easy. "China is already a strong competitor (to ASEAN states) in trade and attracting foreign investment" (Tongzon, 2005). Furthermore, China's firm will and steadfast actions to safeguard its rights on the South China Sea had been interpreted as signals to become increasingly "assertive" on territory and security issues (Thayer, 2011; Yahuda, 2013). Meanwhile, China is still promoting its "Good Neighbour" strategy with deep concerns about the impacts of the rebalancing strategy of the US and smaller countries taking advantage of the big power rivalry. Wang Yi, Minister of Foreign Affairs of China, said: "it is wrong for a small country to play a big one like that" when he was asked about the Philippines' request for arbitration in early 2016.1 Thus, both China and other ASEAN countries are unsatisfied with each other's certain behaviours.

Despite being a critical flashpoint, the South China Sea dispute is essentially a controversy occurring between China and some ASEAN claimants. Conflicts and confrontations have never been the mainstream nor the defining feature of China-ASEAN relations. However, the South China Sea dispute can be treated as a prism, through which we might witness a set of dispositional expressions from both sides. Moreover, this paper would like to argue that the hardcore of those expressions rests on a permanent inquiry area in International Relations, i.e. distrust. A series of key questions would be raised: Why is distrust playing the central role in undermining China-ASEAN relations? How do we understand the seemingly paradox between China's Good Neighbour policy and the South China Sea assertiveness in the light of trust deficit? What are the implications of China's Belt and Road Initiative to ASEAN in terms of trust-building?

This paper aims to answer those questions by first presenting a brief summary of the evolution of China-ASEAN relations in the past decades, focusing on the status of mutual trust between the counterparts. The next section focuses on analyzing trust deficit in international relations, especially vis-á-vis the rise of China as the general background. This paper will explore the rationale for trust-building and assess the efforts made by China in the last section.

2.China-ASEAN Relations and the Evolution of Mutual Trust

Following the establishment of the People's Republic of China, we have witnessed a dramatic transformation of bilateral relations between China and its neighbouring Southeast Asian countries. Trust has played a very important role in the course of interaction, which could shed light on our understanding of recent events.

2.1.Cold War Distrust and Suspicions

In the Cold War era, the bipolar structure shaped the choice of the weak state in the region of Southeast Asia. …

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