DATO’ ABDUL MAJID AHMAD KHAN, PRESIDENT,
MALAYSIA-CHINA FRIENDSHIP ASSOCIATION,
AT INTERNATIONAL SEMINAR ON ASEAN DEVELOPMENT
DECEMBER 13, 2014
It is indeed a pleasure for me to be here today, to join this distinguished gathering for deliberation and exchange of views on a very important subject to all of us. I take this opportunity to thank and express my appreciation to Xinhua News Agency for the invitation extended to me and I wish to commend them for taking the initiative to hold this forum, focusing on Asean development.
This forum is indeed timely as we witness the dynamic transformation taking place in China, Asean as well as Asia Pacific with its regional and international strategic impact. For Asean, it is a coming into being the Asean Economic Community AEC at the end of 2015. China is a rishing power with increasing regional and international influence as well as responsibilities. It is also a strategic neighbor and partner to Asean member states. The Obama Administration pursued of the “Return to Asia Strategy” has further heightened the strategic competition in the Asia Pacific region. According to many analysts China under the leadership of President Xi Xinping has initiated several responses (political and economic) to the US strategy. It is against this evolving strategic backdrop that we are meeting here today to provide ideas and suggestions on the way forward in the contacts of Asean-China relations and the promotion of lasting regional peace, prosperity and stability.
Before I proceed to deliberate on my subject proper i.e. on Asean-China Maritime Cooperation and the Maritime Silk Road (MSR), allow me to make a brief remark on Asean-China relation in general. Looking back to some 23 years ago, when former Chinese Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen attended the first informal China-Asean Ministerial meeting in Kuala Lumpur in which he expressed China’s keen interest to cooperate with Asean commercial benefit, today we can derive a sense of satisfaction to witness that the first step taken by both Asean and China at forging cooperation and friendship has heeded tangible results. Asean-China cooperation today is a success story and modal for regional cooperation. This strategic partnership have grown from strength to strength. However the success achieved was without its challenges as the relationship at the initial period were marked by mutual suspicion and mistrust. With consistent efforts and leadership commitment on both sides, close collaboration had been realized which has brought mutual benefit to Asean, China, the region and the world as well. One of this concrete result of this partnership is the climatic increase in Asean-China bilateral trade, growing five fold from USD78 billion in 2003 to USD444 billion in 2013. This dramatic increase in the past years, would be attributed to the Asean-China Free Trade area.
The challenge before us is how to further deepen and broaden the existing Asean-China partnership given the ongoing development relating to the South China Sea issue. To me, this is not an insurmountable challenge. I am of the view that the South China Sea issue can be addressed through mutual respect and trust. We need to find more command ground upon which to built mutual respect and understanding. Since it is the command wish and inspiration of Asean and China, to build an Asian community of shared destiny through win win cooperation, the appeal of shared Asian values are still relevant. Allow me to quote the Malaysian Defense Minister who in his recent speech in Xian, stated that “Global peace is about people to people relations. It is about bonding, building trust and finding common terms of agreement”. Hence, moving forward both Asean and China need to further strengthened and expand existing cooperation mechanism and focus on interaction that binds us rather than those which separates us.
We have build a solid foundation of cooperation and should seize upon this foundation to build a stronger bond for mutual benefit of our two peoples and the region. Asean and China can draw upon their respective strength and complementary to ensure our partnership remain strong and mutually beneficial. For as the Chinese proverb says “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.” With Malaysia as the Asean chair in 2015, we hope to play a pivotal role in bring the fast growing China closer to the regional dynamics of Asean and help unleash the full potential of both economies.
We note that in charting the way forward, for Asean-China relation, China has initiated several commendable proposal. This initiative included among others, to build a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road together with Asean and to strengthen the China-Asean 2+7 Cooperation Framework. We also note that in China’s declaration of its policy towards its neighbors, relation with Asean remains a priority. China has also reaffirm the centrality of Asean’s role in regional cooperation. Asean has welcome this initiative and it is hope that in forums such as this, concrete ideas and proposals could be generated for the way forward.
Specifically, I would like to share my views on topic assigned to me i.e. “What are the meanings and main obstacles in promoting a Maritime cooperation and building a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road?” and “What role can Asean play in the process?”
Maritime Cooperation between Asean and China constitute a vital linkage in connectivity between the two region. Physical connectivity is a key catalysts to enhancing China-Asean relation. Both Asean and China depends heavily on international trade. And with an excellent maritime collaboration in place, it would only help to further enhance logistics and supply chain management. It is encouraging to note at the recent 20th. Asean-China Transport Ministers’ Meeting in Myanmar, both sides have reaffirmed the importance of cooperation in Maritime Transport has to increase efficiency rate, cargo and passengers traffic. Both parties have agreed to encouraged their competent authorities, shipping companies, ports, relevant research institutions, maritime training institutions to be strengthened. Asean reemphasized its commitment to transport integration through improving of infrastructure, transport safety and to achieve seamless regional connectivity. Asean expressed its appreciation to China support of the Asean connectivity master plan and welcome the Maritime Silk Road proposal and the setting up of the Maritime Silk Road Fund. Both sides have identified several projects for implementation in 2015. As in other sartorial cooperation between Asean and China, cooperation in maritime has their own sets of challenges. This include regulatory and institutional constraints ; poor infrastructure facilities involving ports, terminals and access road and railway; different levels of development, funding issues, as well as capacity building. However, an important take away, is the growing realization particularly on the part of Asean on importance of expending maritime cooperation and the immense benefit it could bring through trade, tourism, economic and the integration process.
Against this backdrop, China’s proposal to build a 21st Century MSR could be a potential boost and catalyst for infrastructure development in the Asean region. It fits into Asean’s own integration and connectivity strategies.
There has been considerable excitement to the 21st Century MSR initiative as it conjures huge infrastructure construction opportunities, acceleration of economic development and buildup of connectivity between Asean itself and with China. It brought back memories of the ancient silk road maritime voyages of Cheng He that connected China with the rest of the world not only through trade but cultural and people to people exchanges. The ancient silk roads and Cheng He’s journey prove to be the roads of integration, mutual learning, peace and friendship. In the case of Malaysia and the Southeast Asia, China’s earlier contact through the ancient maritime route have left behind a positive legacy with many lingering memorable stories. Cheng He’s 7 voyages to Malacca have been frequently referred to as the starting point of Malaysia-China Friendship.
While the Maritime Silk Road is seen as a positive idea, however, there are many ambiguities and clarification needed. What seemed to be lacking are details of its contents and how the initiative is to be driven. As it is, it seemed to be too China centric and have raised concerned among some analysts regarding Asean own future role. For its effective implementation and its positive message to be fully understood, the following consideration need to be noted.
We need to work together to create an international and regional environment of enduring peace, stability and uphold each others sovereignty;
To build the Maritime Silk Road for the 21st Century, requires an open and inclusive mentality keeping in line with the geo politic situation;
There need to be a clear message that the MSR benefit the people in the countries along the way on a win win basis;
To build the MSR requires enhance cooperation and ecology and environment and the development of green economy;
In building the MSR, we should both work hard and follow the natural course of development to seek steady growth as experience has shown the pace of development should be comfortable to all relevant parties.
What can Asean do? Asean or relevant members of Asean, including the Asean Secretariat may wish to come up with a comprehensive respond including elements such as;
Activation operation of a special committee to identify priority project as well as corridor to leverage on the Maritime Silk Road proposal;
Provide leadership at the technical level to explore specific project as to enable the utilization of the various funds provided for. Experience has shown often than not, funds allocated are not utilized for lack of an appropriate project;
The setting up of database and research capabilities on ways that MSR initiative could be dovetail into Asean’s own connectivity and integration plan. Research on how the MDR proposal could generate the growth of tourism, cultural, education, sub regional development, apart from trade.;
Provide information, communication to external players and the industry as well as the market on the potential opportunity to be created by the MSR initiative;
One specific project that Asean could study is the establishment of a new tourism product in the form of cruise tourism. Currently, cruise tourism between China and Asean is under developed and the potential is indeed huge. A multiple destination cruise route along the 21st Century MSR could possibly open huge multi lateral economic opportunities;
Instill a sense of urgency and priority as the MSR initiative complement Asean own connectivity and integration grouping.
Speaking for Malaysia, we are ready for greater collaboration and cooperation with China and the countries along the MSR. We have offered our Maritime Training facilities; we are in the process of developing port cities collaboration between Qinzhou Port, Guangxi Province and the Kuantan Port. Malaysia, in cooperation with China will undertake more capacity building programs. The Kunming-Singapore railway, as well as the proposed high speed train between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, are possible projects that could derive benefit from the MRS initiative.
As a conclusion, in this era of shifting balance and transition, nations cannot just compete but also need to collaborate. If implemented effectively, the MSR could be the vehicle of such cooperation. Asean and China must work together to enhance mutual trust and maintain stability in the region. Thus, paving the way for another golden decade in Asean-China relation.