Fu Xuezhang: Enhancing China-ASEAN Partnership

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Fu Xuezhang, a veteran diplomat and expert on China-ASEAN affairs.

By Wang Fengjuan

“For China and ASEAN, the past 25 years have seen substantial cooperation and growth, as both sides overcame obstacles and forged ahead. That has been the journey of the past. The journey of the future will remain that way,” said Fu Xuezhang, a veteran diplomat and expert on China-ASEAN affairs.

In an interview with China Report ASEAN, Fu spoke of new chapters in people-to-people exchanges between China and ASEAN. Twenty-five years ago, he was appointed China’s ambassador-rank representative to the Supreme National Council of Cambodia. Then, he took up the post of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Republic of Singapore and later to the Kingdom of Thailand.

Sincerity of Friendship

“China will never belittle nor ignore the independence and sovereignty of weak countries,” Fu asserted. “That was why late Cambodian former King Norodom Sihanouk chose to become friends with the Chinese people. ‘Missing China’, a song by Sihanouk himself, was an expression of these feelings.”

During his time at the Chinese Embassy in Cambodia, Fu was one of the first Chinese diplomats to come into contact with Sihanouk.

On October 23, 1991, the Agreement on a Comprehensive Political Settlement of the Cambodian Conflict was signed in Paris. Two days later, the Chinese delegation and Prince Sihanouk traveled to Beijing together on the same Chinese aircraft. During the flight, then-Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen informed Sihanouk that Fu Xuezhang would be appointed China’s ambassador-rank representative to the Supreme National Council of Cambodia, the news of which delighted Sihanouk.

Later that year, on November 13, accompanied by Fu, Prince Sihanouk left Beijing for Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, after living in exile for 13 years. During the flight, Prince Sihanouk told Fu many stories from his past, recounting his experiences fighting for Cambodia’s independence and freedom, a fight which lasted his entire life. He spoke of chaotic situations and times when China came to Cambodia’s aid.

Prince Sihanouk’s experiences in working with China is a testimony to “Misfortune tests the sincerity of friends,” a saying that Fu heard often while working as the Chinese ambassador to Thailand. While in Thailand, Fu often dealt with Surin Pitsuwan, the Thai Foreign Minister at the time, who would frequently quote the saying in Chinese. Surin had learned it from a director in his ministry and felt the saying was a proper expression of the brotherly friendship between the two peoples.

At the peak of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the Thai economy suffered greatly, as did China’s. After consultations with Thai officials, the Chinese government authorized US$1 billion in assistance for Thailand. China also secured an additional US$1 billion for Thai aid through the International Monetary Fund (IMF), before soliciting additional IMF support for Thailand. This support helped to boost close relations between the two countries, and Chinese-Thai trade, which totalled US$3.1 billion in 1996, reached US$3.5 billion in 1997 and US$3.6 billion in 1998.

Through joint efforts by China and Thailand, the Thai economy rebounded and trade relations were strengthened. This helped to inspire confidence among the Thai business community that Thai economic growth would endure.

“There’s no reason for China and ASEAN countries, as close neighbors, not to get along with harmony and amity,” Fu opined. “There’s no reason for them not to work toward mutually beneficial development.”

Surin, who would later become the secretary general of ASEAN, “always followed China with interest, as well as China-ASEAN relations,” Fu recalled.

“In my last meeting with Surin, he talked about the ‘new normal’ of economic development, a new catchphrase in China now,” Fu added. “He discussed with me its implications on international politics, economics and social development.”

Good Neighbors, Friends and Partners

“There’s no reason for China and ASEAN countries, as close neighbors, not to get along with harmony and amity,” Fu opined. “There’s no reason for them not to work toward mutually beneficial development.”

China is a member of ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. The two sides have handled disagreements peacefully through negotiations made possible by the treaty’s provisions.

In 1994, with support from the Singaporean and Chinese governments, the Suzhou Industrial Park was launched in eastern China’s Jiangsu Province. In 1995, when Fu became China’s ambassador to Singapore, work on the industrial park had just begun.

At the start of cooperation, China and Singapore encountered some differences in approach regarding the establishment of the industrial park. Fu served as a mediator between China and Singapore, researching ways to reach common goals that did not favor one side over the other. Mutual trust made the project possible, and once differences were worked out, construction proceeded without major problems.

Later on, Fu made efforts to support China-ASEAN exchanges in education and culture. He worked with Nanjing University and Shanghai Jiaotong University in setting up their postgraduate programs in Singapore, and also served as the Chinese education adviser at the Mae Fah Luang University in Thailand, and shared his educational experiences with the Sirindhorn Chinese Language and Culture Center, the Confucius Institute and the Chinese Academy in Thailand.

“China and ASEAN countries have many cultural similarities,” Fu said. “Educational cooperation is a foundation for promoting political and economic cooperation. Recently, Xiamen University established a branch in Malaysia. Thailand’s Panyapiwat Institute of Management has begun offering a program on Chinese language and culture. Both of these recent projects show the depth of cooperation and cultural understanding b etween ASEAN and China.”

Fu still remembers what Thai Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn said more than 10 years ago, that “Thailand appreciates Chinese education and would like to have the chance to learn from Chinese high school textbooks.” “At that time, I thought to myself that Thailand, too, has much experience that China can learn from, such as its experience in cultivating folk customs through different channels, often through subtle means,” Fu said. “This is worth our study and close consideration.”

Fu added that “Mae Fah Luang University in Thailand has a special motto: To cultivate talents is to cultivate qualities. That puts equal emphasis on academic learning and life experience. Some Southeast Asian countries have carried forward the fine tradition of Oriental civilization, and behavioral education is part of their childhood. Children are taught to match their words and deeds to a fixed pattern, and always be honest and trustworthy in the way they get along with people. Those are all experiences our children can learn from.”

On February 9, 2016, Mae Fah Luang University’s 13th graduation ceremony was held. On behalf of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Princess Sirindhorn presided over the ceremony. She presented an honorary doctorate certificate to Fu, who has maintained close ties with the country even after his time as ambassador came to an end. Fu’s award marked the first time a foreign envoy to Thailand has been honored in such a way.

At 77, Fu is still active in ChinaASEAN activities.

“I hope friendly relations between China and ASEAN will continue to develop in a healthy and stable manner, despite various obstacles,” Fu said, smiling broadly. “For the rest of my life, I will do my best to contribute to the promotion and development of exchanges and friendship between China and ASEAN.”

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