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Poverty reduction cooperation is a pillar of China-ASEAN relations

Since the dialogue relations were established between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1991, bilateral cooperation in poverty reduction has made remarkable achievements.

China-ASEAN cooperation on poverty reduction has witnessed the continued efforts of both sides throughout the past 30 years. Since 2003, China and ASEAN have formulated a series of cooperation plans on poverty reduction, included in the Joint Declaration on ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity (2005-10) and action plans from 2005 till today. These plans provided goals and guidance for cooperative efforts in practice. Furthermore, since 2007, the ASEAN-China Forum on Social Development and Poverty Reduction has become an annual dialogue between the two sides in which they share their experiences of poverty reduction. The ASEAN+3 Village Leaders Exchange Program was launched in 2013, complemented by various training and pilot programs to encourage exchanges and cooperation on poverty reduction at the grassroots level. These initiatives have improved the living conditions of local residents and poverty rates in the cooperation regions have steadily declined.

These achievements are based on the gradual installation of three-pillar driving forces--the deepening cooperation at the state, market and social levels. In the early stage, China-ASEAN cooperation on poverty reduction was primarily driven at the state level. State action plans were drawn up and principles and guidance for cooperative practice were provided by the government. The ASEAN-China Forum on Social Development and Poverty Reduction was also based on the cooperation between governments, and among high-level officials, distinguished scholars and representatives of international organizations.

As China and ASEAN have strengthened their trade and economic ties, the market has played an increasingly important role in poverty reduction. China has been ASEAN's largest trade partner for years, with the total two-way trade volume in goods exceeding $878.2 billion in 2021. China's direct investment in ASEAN has also grown rapidly, reaching $14.35 billion in 2021 and it accumulated to $300 billion bilaterally over the past 30 years. Trade and investment have accelerated local development and helped alleviate poverty. Investment in infrastructure has significantly contributed to economic development, job creation and stable energy supplies, generating additional income sources and improving the quality of life for the poor. In addition, cooperation in agricultural technology has dramatically increased productivity, helping to ease food shortages.

As China and ASEAN deepen their cooperation in poverty reduction, communication at the social level is crucial. Since 2013, village leaders of China, South Korea, Japan and ASEAN have taken part in regular exchanges across the ASEAN+3 countries, visiting fields and staying for weeks to experience local life and thoroughly exchange views. Meanwhile, hundreds of training programs were held to introduce experiences, successful cases and best practices. Pilot programs have been launched in the ASEAN members to construct infrastructure, provide public services, train skills for labor and upgrade technologies in poverty-stricken areas. The increasing cooperation at the social level enables China to learn more about local needs and take more effective approaches to help alleviate poverty in the ASEAN members, making the cooperation more substantial.

Despite such impressive progress, China-ASEAN poverty reduction cooperation is facing multiple challenges. Although an encouraging sign is that a growing number of countries have joined poverty reduction cooperation in this region, however, most of the Japanese and US programs tend to attach political strings and even set standards to purposely exclude China from participating in some cooperative initiatives. Poverty reduction needs more cooperation from the international community, but it is still highly likely that more poverty reduction projects in this region may become politicized.

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic and the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict have aggravated the poverty in the ASEAN members. In 2021, 4.7 million people in the region were pushed into extreme poverty, and 9.3 million jobs were lost. The Ukraine crisis has cut the supply chains of many commodities, causing shortages of food, fertilizers and industrial raw materials. These will make the poverty reduction objectives more difficult to realize.

To cope with these challenges, in the future, China-ASEAN cooperation on poverty reduction could take the following steps.

First, while maintaining the important roles played by the state and market, China could further extend the role of social engagement and increase grassroots participation. This should include enhancing cooperation on education, culture and the media, encouraging exchanges between think tanks, local governments and young people, creating more child education, water sanitation, maternal and child nutrition, healthcare access, housing and agriculture projects as models of high-quality Belt and Road cooperation, and helping increase the resilience, sustainability and inclusiveness of ASEAN societies.

Second, China can increase the engagement of social groups and multilateral organizations. Multilateral organizations have accumulated valuable knowledge and experience on poverty reduction, and are able to provide helpful advice and network to solve problems suited to local needs. Besides, social groups could meet the varied needs of different interest groups. Therefore, they should be engaged with more in future poverty reduction cooperative efforts.

Third, China can make efforts to increase dialogue with other countries, building bridges for trilateral or multilateral cooperation. Despite the considerable challenges, China is willing to collaborate with other nations, especially Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea, to work on the same mission of reducing poverty in ASEAN. These efforts would benefit not only ASEAN, but also help reduce regional tensions and maintain peace and prosperity in Southeast Asia.

Fourth, China can put forward a systematic evaluation system. These include ex-ante investigations, process monitoring, plan adjustment, and ex-post evaluations. Furthermore, the system should also comprehensively contain multi-dimensional indicators, including those on economic development, social progress, environment and ecological protection, making the poverty alleviation programs more effective and sustainable.

Zhai Kun is a professor of the School of International Studies and deputy director of the Institute of Area Studies at Peking University. Ma Tianyue is an associate researcher at the China Center for International Knowledge on Development. The authors contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Contact the editor at editor@chinawatch.cn