China’s growing cooperation with BIMP-EAGA

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Author: Ngeow Chow Bing, University of Malaysia

The somewhat awkwardly called East Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines ASEAN Growth Zone (BIMP-EAGA) is an ASEAN sub-regional zone launched in 1994. The zone – which covers Brunei and parts of Indonesia (Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Maluku and Papua), Malaysia (Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan) and the Philippines (Mindanao and Palawan) – is described as “geographically remote from national capitals, but strategically close to each other. others “.

The initiative aimed to address the lack of socio-economic development in these remote areas. Around the same time, other parallel sub-regional initiatives such as the Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle and regional-scale integration initiatives such as the ASEAN Free Trade Area have seen the day. BIMP-EAGA was therefore conceived at a time of hope for substantial socio-economic progress through cooperation.

But the initiative slowed down considerably following the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998. An intergovernmental coordinating body, the Facilitation Center, was not established until 2003, almost a decade after the initiative was launched. It was also not until 2003 that the first BIMP-EAGA leaders’ summit was held, on the sidelines of an ASEAN summit.

Since then, three important documents have guided the development of BIMP-EAGA: Roadmap for development (2006-2010), Implementation plan (2012-2016) and BIMP-EAGA Vision 2025 (2017-2025). These documents presented the “strategic pillars” of the consortium, its main economic sectors and the crucial projects that would help achieve the BIMP-EAGA vision for a “resilient, inclusive, sustainable and economically competitive sub-region”.

China was one of the first non-ASEAN countries to engage with BIMP-EAGA. In 2009, China and BIMP-EAGA signed a cooperation framework document, affirming the role of the former as a “strategic development partner”. Not much happened in the decade that followed.

China has intensified its efforts in recent years, with the aim of cultivating more comprehensive and multi-level ties with ASEAN. In November 2018, the first ministerial-level meeting between China and BIMP-EAGA was held, during which it was agreed that cooperation between the two should be strengthened. The second ministerial-level meeting was held in November 2019, with the China BIMP-EAGA Cooperation Action Plan 2020-2025 adopted. In addition to the priority areas identified in the 2009 Cooperation Framework, new areas include the digital economy and poverty reduction, while mining exploration and finance were removed from the 2009 list.

China’s growing interest in BIMP-EAGA can be seen in its recent joint statements with Brunei and Malaysia, and in a speech by Xi Jinping at the end of 2020, where it was identified as a key area of ​​China-ASEAN cooperation. . The ASEAN-China Joint Statement on the Synergy of the ASEAN Connectivity Master Plan 2025 and the Belt and Road Initiative, adopted in Bangkok in 2019, also mentions BIMP-EAGA. On the ground, China has four consular offices, making it, along with Australia and Japan, one of the countries with the largest consular presence in BIMP-EAGA.

COVID-19 and the challenges of post-pandemic economic recovery provide opportunities for China to be a meaningful BIMP-EAGA partner. In many respects, BIMP-EAGA remains relatively behind in terms of socio-economic development. With the exception of Brunei, the GDP per capita of the other BIMP-EAGA economies is well below their national averages.

Whether in terms of infrastructure, digital economy, agriculture, green technologies, public health, tourism, industrial parks or human capacity building, China has the capacity and resources to support BIMP -EAGA. It also has the motivation to demonstrate its commitment to the provision of public goods in the less developed regions of the world, especially in the context of its strained relations with much of the developed world.

But China must be careful. There are ongoing territorial and maritime disputes between BIMP-EAGA countries, while piracy and terrorism remain active in some areas. The “center-periphery” dynamics in BIMP-EAGA are the most sensitive, the national capitals being extremely suspicious of local centrifugal forces or even outright secessionist movements in the sub-region. China will have to find the right balance between dialogue with local actors and central authorities.

Additionally, due to its nine-dash line in the South China Sea, China has overlapping territorial or maritime disputes with the four BIMP-EAGA countries. While disputes in the South China Sea do not necessarily preclude China-BIMP-EAGA cooperation, any escalation of disputes will have a negative impact on the latter. But in the absence of a functional cooperation platform in the South China Sea, the China-BIMP-EAGA cooperation can be a meaningful alternative for these countries.

Geopolitically, the increased Chinese presence in BIMP-EAGA can also be alarming for the United States. At present, the United States has a minimal presence in BIMP-EAGA. But two American allies, Australia and Japan, maintain an active presence. BIMP-EAGA is geographically the closest to Australia and covers important trade routes between Australia and other parts of the world, while Japan has traditionally been BIMP-EAGA’s primary development partner.

The entry of China in BIMP-EAGA could stimulate a competitive dynamic which pushes Australia and Japan to increase their investments and their economic aid to the sub-region. But competitive dynamics don’t always need to define how China, Japan and Australia interact with BIMP-EAGA. While China may have the greatest financial prowess, China has a lot to learn from Japan and Australia about the history and economy of the subregion, and how best to contribute to its success. development.

Ngeow Chow Bing is Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies, University of Malaysia.

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