Asean gains from Wang Yi’s visit

Fruitful discussion: Hishammuddin (right) posing with Wang before the meeting on pragmatic cooperation between the two countries. —Bernama

THE five-day visit to several Asean nations by China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi last week has brought some good news for Malaysia and its neighbours, as they battle the resurgence of the Covid-19 breakout.

According to Xinhua News Agency, Wang Yi’s trip to South-East Asian countries from Oct 11-15 would further strengthen China-Asean ties and anti-virus cooperation, as well as contribute to maintaining regional peace and stability.

Cambodia was the first leg of Wang’s Asean tour, which then took him to Malaysia, Laos and Thailand. The trip also saw him taking a transit stop at Singapore to meet with his counterpart.

In Phnom Pehn, Wang met with Cambodian premier Hun Sen and witnessed the signing of China-Cambodia free trade agreement and other documents on bilateral cooperation.

Commerce Minister Pan Sorasak of Cambodia, which has received a lot of assistance from Beijing to combat Covid-19 from the start of the epidemic, reportedly said this was “the first-ever” bilateral free trade agreement for Cambodia.

“The signing of this agreement marks another key historical milestone for Cambodia-China relation... It would provide a more robust economic partnership through higher degree of market access and liberalisation for goods, services and investments, ” Sorasak said.

In Kuala Lumpur, Wang announced Beijing’s commitment to buy 1.7 million tonnes of palm oil until 2023 while meeting with Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein.

Putrajaya was also told Beijing would encourage its private firms to purchase Malaysian palm oil and invest in the country.

These pledges are important to Malaysia as they come at a time when the government is struggling to revive its virus-hit economy.

Wang also pledged that Malaysia, now seeing a spike in Covid-19 cases and deaths, would be given “priority recipient status” for China-produced Covid-19 vaccines, once they are tested as safe.

According to Xinhua News, this pledge on vaccine cooperation was also made to other Asean nations by Wang Yi on Oct 16 in Yunnan after he held talks with Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Indonesian President’s special envoy, and Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin Jr.

At a joint news conference with Wang on Oct 13, Hishammuddin said both nations had agreed to conclude on a Memorandum of Understanding that will provide the broad framework of pragmatic cooperation between the two countries.

China has been Malaysia’s largest foreign investor in the manufacturing sector for four years since 2016. Last year, Malaysia approved 79 investments worth US$3.74bil from China.

In the past 10 years, China has been the largest trading partner of Malaysia. In 2019, total bilateral trade hit record level of US$123.96bil.

Both nations also agreed to continue discussions on the Reciprocal Green Lane (RGL) to facilitate cross border movements for business and official travels.

On Oct 14 in Vientiane, Wang and his Lao counterpart Saleumxay Kommasith agreed to strengthen bilateral cooperation, economic ties and coordination in regional affairs.

Wang said China would

join hands with Laos on the BRI, implement China-aided welfare projects in Laos, grant zero-tariff treatment to Laotian products and import more Laotian agricultural products.

Wang said China is willing to carry out the consensuses reached at the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) leaders’ meeting, support the New Land-Sea Corridor to promote the development of six countries of the region.

Calling China “comrades-in-arms” of Laos, Saleumxay thanked China for its long-term financial assistance and strong support in combating the epidemic in Laos.

China is financing and building the China-Laos Railway, scheduled for completion in late 2021.

The US$6bil project linking Vientiane to Kunming is expected to boost trade and economic activities in Laos and the surrounding region.

“Laos is willing to maintain high-level exchanges with China, further deepen cooperation in such areas as fighting the epidemic, economy, trade, and finance, ” said the Laotian foreign minister.

While meeting with Thai deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai on Oct 15, Wang also offered China’s pledge on vaccine.

He supported establishing a “fast lane” for personnel movement and a “green channel” for goods.

For Thailand’s economic development, Wang expressed support for the development of Thai Eastern Economic Corridor.

Don said Thailand is pushing forward with the construction of the Thailand-China high-speed rail and supports the link between the China-Laos Railway and the Thailand-China high-speed rail.

Thailand hopes China would enhance cooperation in innovation and sustainable development.

China’s achievements

According to CGTN, Wang has achieved his objective to strengthen Beijing’s diplomatic and economic ties with Asean nations.

On President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), most Asean countries are supporting it as they see huge economic opportunities for their countries by participating in these projects.

As Asean has overtaken the United States and European Union to be the biggest trading partner of China, they will benefit greatly from China-led regional economic projects.

The reaffirmation of support for BRI can be seen when Hishammuddin declared on Oct 13: “Malaysia reaffirmed its unwavering support for BRI based on the principles of mutual trust, mutual benefits, and shared prosperity.”Neutral stand

On US-China conflict, Beijing should be relieved that Asean has taken a neutral stand, refusing to be drawn into taking side with any major power.

Despite provocations by the United States on the South China Sea territorial issues and complaints about Chinese military outposts in contentious waters, Asean has generally adopted a non-confrontational attitude towards Beijing.

Hishammuddin’s statement on dispute resolution can be taken to represent current Asean view: “Disputes should be addressed through peaceful means, including through regional dialogues and discussions among parties concerned, without resorting to threat or the use of force.”

Due to the strong economic and trade ties between China and Asean, it will be difficult for outsiders to replace China’s position and status in Asean.

For Wang Yi, he has also used his trip to send out an important – though not new - message to players in the region, the United States and India.

He urged Asian countries to stay vigilant over the risk of US strategy stoking geopolitical competition in the region, and stated Beijing and Asean should work together to remove “external disruption” in the South China Sea issues.

“China and Asean have full capacity and wisdom as well as responsibility to maintain peace and tranquillity in South China Sea, ” he pointed out.

Wang also described Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy that widens US military presence in the region as a “security risk” for East Asia.

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