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SE Asian momentum unaffected by US

Global Times (2013-10-14 P16)
By Global Times
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang headed to Brunei Wednesday to attend regional summits and started official visits to three Southeast Asian countries, namely Brunei, Thailand and Vietnam, a day after Chinese President Xi Jinping concluded his first trip to the region since taking office in March.
ASEAN member states are a vital object of China's diplomacy regarding its neighboring areas. From the geopolitical perspective, China faces Russia to its north, India to its southwest and Japan to its east.
These countries are in a competitive position with China, while China's southeastern neighbors barely pose any threat.
Meanwhile, these Southeast Asian countries, as an integrated part, are largely developing ones, and share similar development goals with China.
A decade ago, I concluded that China and these countries are "natural friends." In recent years, with the changing scenario in the Asia-Pacific region such as the US "pivot to Asia" and Japan's provocations in the Diaoyu Islands dispute, the importance of ASEAN countries to China's strategic interests is prominent.
China is right to set Southeast Asia as one of its diplomatic priorities. China and ASEAN have just experienced their "golden decade" and walking toward a "diamond" relationship in the next 10 years.
In this transitional period, there have been doubts about this relationship as the South China Sea issue has become an obstacle in China and ASEAN attempting to deepen their ties in recent years.
The Philippines and Vietnam have been escalating tensions with China over the issue, and some ASEAN members have tried to butt in under the name of ASEAN as a whole.
China's new leadership has sent a clear signal in developing ties with ASEAN countries. At the 16th ASEAN-China summit in Brunei last week, Li showed an earnest attitude and addressed his remarks with a more human touch.
Li said China is ready to discuss a treaty which will offer guidelines for friendly cooperation.
China has signed such a treaty with only a few countries. The signing of the treaty will put ties between China and ASEAN under a legal framework and will boost the political mutual trust between the two parties and alleviate ASEAN members' worries about China's rise and the South China Sea disputes.
Li also outlined a plan to establish an Asian infrastructure investment bank that will provide financial support for infrastructure construction in developing countries in Asia, including ASEAN members.
This immense project, if carried out successfully, will promote the economic development of China and ASEAN and the whole Asia-Pacific region.
The Chinese leadership's high-profile activities in Southeast Asia have raised concern from foreign media which said China is exerting influence in the region by taking advantage of the absence of US President Barack Obama.
China does not see Southeast Asia as a battlefield to wrestle with the US. At the top level, the leaders from both sides have reached a consensus that cooperation rather than competition serves the good of both countries in this region. With or without the US factor, China will still set Southeast Asia top of its agenda.
Even if Obama did not cancel his Southeast Asia trips and went as he had planned, the US would not offset China's influence in the region. Geopolitically and economically, China has a closer relationship with ASEAN than the US does.

The article was compiled by Global Times reporter Wang Wenwen based on an interview with Lu Jianren, chief research fellow at the Institute of China-ASEAN Research of Guangxi University.
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