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A center with power of 2 billion people

By Kavi Chongkittavorn | China Daily | Updated: 2013-08-08 10:02

Beaming with confidence, Ma Mingqiang says he is determined to do everything in his capacity to strengthen people-to-people awareness and understanding between ASEAN and China during his three-year tenure. Why? "It is the weakest link," he says, between ASEAN and China, one of their most important dialogue partners with a combined population of nearly 2 billion. Ma's remark matters, because he is the secretary-general of ASEAN-China Center and takes his pledges seriously.

Indeed, given the current state of ASEAN-China relations, marred by the South China Sea disputes, the Beijing-headquartered ACC has done much to ease tensions in the region and bring together people from different countries for friendly discussions and celebrations. The center has organized myriad events and activities to build trust between the two sides.

The latest event to be organized by the center was Indonesian Night in Beijing - a program to promote the culture and food of Indonesia. It will be followed by an exhibition of paintings by renowned Chinese artists in Bangkok from Aug 13 to 19 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the ASEAN-China strategic partnership

As former deputy director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Asian Department, Ma is no stranger to the ASEAN circle. Those who have interacted with him in his earlier capacity consider him a maverick because of his straightforward views, which he says has helped him build networks and forge collaboration with private and public sectors in China and ASEAN. "He knows ASEAN like the back of his hand," says a diplomat from ASEAN. "He is the right man in the right job."

In 1991 when China became a full dialogue partner of ASEAN, Ma was serving as the third secretary in the Chinese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur and quickly got engaged with ASEAN, and since then he has been working to strengthen ASEAN-China relations. Ma was part of the team led by current Foreign Minister Wang Yi that negotiated the Declaration of Conducts of Parties in South China Sea in 2002.

The ACC had a soft opening in August 2011 as an intergovernmental organization. It is considered a milestone in ASEAN-China relations and is aimed at promoting multifaceted cooperation. It is the newest center in the ASEAN+3 family, preceded by the ASEAN-Japan Center (1981) and the ASEAN-South Korean Center (2009). And the leaders from the three centers have already held discussions on how to improve ASEAN+3 relations.

This is significant because China-Japan and Japan-South Korea relations have been under strain over maritime claims for some time. In fact, the three centers are just a few platforms where still open regional relations, albeit non-political, can be discussed.

All the three centers are tasked with promoting trade, investment and tourism with ASEAN. But the ACC has the added task of promoting educational and cultural exchanges between the two sides because, as Ma says, cementing people-to-people contacts is critical to the sustainability of ASEAN-China ties.

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