“The people of ASEAN and China need to understand that we are more alike than we are different. Despite our region’s remarkable diversity, we possess an Asian worldview that bridges our beliefs, cultures, and ways of life. This is our strongest capital in creating and socializing norms and practices that appeal to our unique sensibilities.” This was the message shared by the Foreign Service Institute’s Director-General Claro Cristobal at the opening of the 4th Network of ASEAN-China Think Tanks (NACT) Seminar held on 5 October 2017 at the AG New World Manila Bay Hotel, Manila.
The NACT is an institutionalized and regular platform of communication and cooperation between ASEAN and China academics and think-tanks. This year’s theme, “People-to-People Exchanges between ASEAN and China: A New Pillar”, underscores development cooperation through people relations – the heart of ASEAN’s engagement with its dialogue partners. In her keynote address, DFA Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs Sarah Lou Y. Arriola reiterated the importance of peaceful coexistence as pre-requisite for regional prosperity. She said, “In order to strengthen the foundation of our cooperation, we need to enhance mutual trust and seek common ground. As good neighbors, we need to treat each other with respect at all times.”
The Seminar was divided into three sessions. Speakers of the first part provided overview and prospects of people-to-people (P2P) exchanges. ASEAN-China P2P relations is about putting premium on human capital. It is about individual citizens becoming involved in peace and development activities through deeper understanding of each other based on sharing common experiences, culture and humanity. It encompasses a wide range of channels of communication among educational institutions, tourism and youth sectors, and business and financial clusters. Mr. Lye Liang Fook of NACT Singapore stressed that ASEAN and China P2P does not start from scratch. In Singapore’s case, there are existing exchange programs and P2P mechanisms with China that just need to be continued and strengthened.
In his plenary remarks to open the second session, Commissioner Prospero De Vera of the Philippine Commission on Higher Education emphasized the significance of educational cooperation in linking the peoples of ASEAN and China. Other speakers of the second session provided rich discussion on the ASEAN Socio-cultural Community. Ms. Charadine Pich of NACT Cambodia stated that both ASEAN and China need to create synergy and effective efforts, which must be extended to non-state actors and the grassroots level, in order to realize common objectives. Ms. Siti Daulah Khoiriati of NACT Indonesia highlighted the importance of China’s clear communication strategy in forging ASEAN-China P2P relations in order to avoid misperceptions.
The potentials of P2P contacts in the context of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) were the highlight of the last session. Mr. Steven Wong of NACT Malaysia put forward that the BRI is not just about physical infrastructures and economic connectivity, but it is ultimately about people. It is the people who will either facilitate or impede the project by taking advantage of the enhanced physical connectivity for positive or negative purposes. Prof. Rowena Layador of NACT Philippines said that the BRI is not only a gesture of goodwill beyond markets but also an opportunity to address trust deficits between ASEAN and China.
Deputy Director Yang Yue of China Foreign Affairs University’s Institute of Asian Studies concluded that ASEAN and China should continue to appreciate what has been achieved together and discuss what has to be done for their future.
A day before the Seminar, the NACT Country Coordinators met to approve working group reports and discuss work plan for 2018. Later in the day, the delegates had a preview of Philippine history at the Ayala Museum and were treated to Filipino traditional snacks while being entertained with Filipino folk music and dances at the Museum Café. The city tour capped off with souvenir items shopping at the Balikbayan Handicrafts in Pasay City. The ASEAN Organizing Council, the Department of Tourism, and Department of Health were instrumental in putting the activity to a successful conclusion with the Foreign Service Institute, the lead agency.