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Asean should ditch ‘younger, weaker brother’ mentality when dealing with China

Region sells itself short as a ‘taker, rather than giver’ but should instead take confidence in being the world’s fifth largest – and growing – economy, expert says

Conference also hears how the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership has created a ‘common market’ that chimes with Beijing’s dual circulation theory

The 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) bloc, with over 650 million people and set to become the fourth largest global economy by 2030, should stop selling itself short as a junior partner in ties with China.

That was among the key themes touched on by economic and trade experts during the first day of the South China Morning Post’s China Conference: Southeast Asia.

Chris Humphrey, the executive director of the EU-Asean Business Council, said the bloc had tended to view itself as a “younger, weaker brother” in its relationships with other nations, but it should not do given its economic heft.

“I think Asean always tends to view itself as more of the taker rather than the giver in many of these relationships, but it has an awful lot to offer, a lot to offer China as well,” Humphrey said, pointing to how Asean as a region was currently the world’s fifth largest economy and home to the world’s third largest workforce.

Humphrey was part of an online panel discussing how a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with China could impact the Asean region.

He spoke alongside Trinh Nguyen, senior economist of emerging Asia at Natixis, and Wang Huiyao, founder and president of the Centre for China and Globalisation.

In November, Asean nations and China officially upgraded their ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership (CSP), signalling increased cooperation in a range of sectors, including greater priority in foreign affairs, security and defence, and economic policymaking.

While Humphrey said the CSP was “not a bad thing” for Asean, he questioned if it represented additional value beyond Asean’s present relationship with China.

He also disagreed with Wang about the benefits that closer ties with China brought to the region.

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