As China rises, its role and influence in global affairs will grow. China is already taking steps to become a responsible global citizen. It is already one of the largest contributors to UN peacekeeping operations. Within the Asia-Pacific, there are opportunities for China’s role to grow, for example, by contributing to the region’s connectivity through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the multilateral Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). In general, China’s connectivity initiatives in the region have been met with positive responses in projects such as Indonesia’s railway project.
Originally conceived as high-speed railway (HSR) but later changed to a medium-speed version before changing back to a HSR, the railway project linking Jakarta with Bandung (approximately 150 km in total) was awarded to China in 2015. Beijing provided USD 5 billion in loans for this project. China leveraged on its experience in building railway infrastructure for the bid. When completed, the journey will only take half an hour or so as envisioned. Projects like these, when completed, will become showcases of Chinese infrastructure technology for other Chinese initiatives in Asia. There is enough breadth for all stakeholders in infrastructure building to fund such projects and China may be able to work with other major states and international organizations (IOs) for such initiatives.
China is set to become a major contributor to infrastructure building in the Southeast Asia region. This will value-add to the ASEAN’s production networks as the region aspires to become an economic community (the ASEAN Economic Community or AEC is formed on December 31, 2015). Like other major stakeholders, China is keen to tap into the potential of ASEAN’s 500 million-strong consumer market and utilize the region’s young and affordable workforce (e.g. Vietnam and Philippines) for industrial production activities. Meanwhile, Southeast Asians can benefit from the training, skills, infrastructure, and developmental assistance provided by China.
China is also working with other major powers such as the US to address pressing issues like counter-terrorism and managing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The new Donald Trump administration in the US (which just recently celebrated its first 100 days in office) as well as President Xi Jinping’s government have started off on a positive note at the Mar-a-Lago resort summit meeting hosted by President Trump. The two leaders seemed to have concluded that their counterparts are individuals they can work with. This is good news as the US is probably the most important partner in China’s economic cooperation initiatives.
China is also cooperating with other major powers in the region. China has been working with Japan to tackle selected cross-boundary issues. It is also worthy to note that Japan has recently announced its intention to possibly join the AIIB at the BRI Forum. China has also cooperated with Russia in capacity-building on the Eurasian continent, through organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It is also working with the European Union (EU) in issues like clean energy and sustainable urbanization. India is working with China in the Shanghai-based BRICS Bank (now known as New Development Bank or NDB) headed by an Indian national (KV Kamath). Items of cooperation with other countries are too numerous to list here.
Beijing has been active in spearheading regional trade arrangements that promote free trade and a neoliberal trade regime, including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement.
All these issues are known as no-detriment areas of cooperation. They are functionalist in nature. They have the potential to enmesh China with other stakeholders in global development and world peace, resulting in a greater degree of interdependence. Therefore, they have the potential to mitigate any regional tensions/conflicts and prevents wars due to the attractive yield of economic development arising from peace dividends. The idea is to prevent international relations and bilateral relationships from being overly dominated by the zero-sum games of realism. Capacity-building activities inspire trust and is a form of confidence building measure (CBM) that can lead to greater understanding in the region.
China can tap into other major powers’ experiences in capacity building activities, including working with IOs set up by the US after the end of the Second World War, to look into problems far more complex and massive for any one single power or organization to manage. China can also tap into Japan’s decades of Asian Development Bank (ADB) experience in managing ADB projects, which is extremely useful as reference materials for the AIIB. China is able to find like-minded entities in ASEAN and the EU to push back anti-globalization forces and isolationist tendencies. China had been a major beneficiary of the neoliberal world economic order and is now its main advocate — something President Xi publicly articulated in Davos Switzerland at the World Economic Forum (WEF) on January 17, 2017.
Consequently, Beijing has been active in spearheading regional trade arrangements that promote free trade and a neoliberal trade regime, including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement which is a traditional free trade agreement (FTA) that focuses on breaking down barriers to trade. It is an agreement where Tokyo has expressed interest in moving forward. China is also in talks with countries such as Australia and Japan who are leading the revival of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a golden-standard trade agreement that emphasizes intellectual property rights (IPR) and worker’s rights amongst other items.
From time to time, there may be points of friction as both China and regional countries adjust to China’s rise, as manifested in maritime conflicts in the South China Sea (SCS). Countries in the region welcome China’s efforts to work with regional countries on this, such as their commitment to work on the Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea. The benefits of cooperation outweigh the detriments caused by any potential tensions and conflicts in the region.
In terms of functionalist cooperation, China and other major powers and stakeholders like the US, Japan, Russia, India as well as international organizations can work together to fund Asia’s infrastructure needs. The key is to enhance confidence-building measures (CBMs), organize more people to people exchanges to intensify cooperation and focus on no-detriments cooperation like preventing environmental destruction, piracy, terrorism, poverty and other common challenges that are transboundary in nature.