Upon leaving the Nanning Wuxu International Airport, any visitor will notice the beautifully decorated (and consistently-maintained) national flags of the ten ASEAN member states along the highway into the city centre of Nanning.
As one travels around this capital city of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (GZAR) with its recently-operated rail transit lines, one can also find a definite number of ASEAN students (especially the mainland Southeast Asians) using such mode of transportation.
Within the city too, stood the beacon of Nanning ─ the International Convention and Exhibition Centre which hosts the annual China-ASEAN Expo (CAEXPO) ─ as well as the bustling ASEAN Business District for local companies that have business dealings with Southeast Asian countries.
No doubt, ever since Guangxi is promoted to be the host for CAEXPO and its related event, China-ASEAN Business and Investment Summit (CABIS) in 2004, Nanning has undergone a miraculous transformation from a relatively unfamiliar city to a city which is now known today as China’s ‘strategic gateway’ to ASEAN and vice versa.
Ironically, despite far-reaching developments that took place in Nanning fourteen years ago, not much has been written or discussed on the city’s multi-dimensional involvements in China-ASEAN cooperation.
Such puzzle begs the million-dollar question: As ASEAN partner, how much do we know about the city’s strategic roles in facilitating China-ASEAN cooperation?
To start things, Guangxi is not the first sub-state actor which started any cooperation with ASEAN member states.
In fact, Yunnan is the first to join the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) cooperation framework in 1992 and subsequently, acquired the capacity and know-how to construct the new trans-sub-regional cooperation network that connects the GMS with the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) initiative.
Guangxi, meanwhile, started to be involved in China-ASEAN cooperation 12 years later in 2004, following the designation of Nanning as the host city for both CAEXPO and CABIS events.
However, unlike Yunnan, Guangxi is not fixated on the sub-regional cooperation with ASEAN countries but rather, it navigates along regional and sub-regional dimensions to draw maximum economic benefits from both cooperation frameworks.
This explains the reason Guangxi promoted its sub-regional cooperation forum, Pan-Beibu Gulf Economic Cooperation (PBGEC) Forum, alongside the existing events of CAEXPO and CABIS.
For Nanning, Guangxi’s participation in China-ASEAN cooperation opened up a myriad of possibilities for the capital city to insert itself into international cooperation.
This is evident in the different strategic roles the city is currently plying within such cooperation.
First and foremost, the Nanning city government is the implementer, promoter and anchor for the three most important annual events for Guangxi ─ CAEXPO, CABIS and PBGEC Forum.
As the host city, Nanning is a natural implementer for these events as early as in 2004. Being the most localised authority within the organisational team, the city government has to support the CAEXPO and CABIS Secretariats as well as the Guangxi government in deciding the location of the exhibition or forum.
It also ensures public security during these events, beautifying the areas nearby, handling the logistics and so forth.
In short, the city government works toward the fulfilment of the requirements and goals set by both Guangxi government and the Chinese central government.
On the other hand, the Nanning government is also the promoter for these events, especially both CAEXPO and CABIS.
As elucidated earlier, the erections of ASEAN member states’ architectures along the highway from the airport is a demonstration of the city government’s proactive efforts to promote the Southeast Asian bloc to the local city residents.
The same goes to the widespread banners, slogans and pictures depicting both the CAEXPO and CABIS throughout the city, the designation of a business district as the ASEAN Business District as well as the exterior decoration in Qingxiu Mountain Park which featured the elements of ASEAN countries.
It is crystal clear that the Nanning city government is trying to create the ‘ASEAN wave’ among the locals in its pursuit to be the Chinese forefront city with the Southeast Asian bloc.
In long-term, the Nanning city government is also the anchor for these three events. Being designated as the permanent host for CAEXPO and CABIS by Beijing, the authorities in Nanning are responsible for ensuring the development of these annual events are in tandem with the future trends.
Being the permanent hub for both Chinese and ASEAN business communities to explore cooperation and operate their businesses, it is the interest for the Nanning city government to make sure the relevance and importance of CAEXPO and CABIS are not compromised by time and space.
For if the city government fails to innovate and upgrade these events to correspond to new trends and developments, the city’s overall positioning as China’s ‘gateway’ to ASEAN and vice versa, will be very much in doubt.
The same goes to the PBGEC Forum which is evolving since its inauguration in 2006 and poised to place Nanning as the hub between Guangxi and six ASEAN countries, namely, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Second, the Nanning city government is definitely the connector between Guangxi and ASEAN countries.
This is especially crucial considering that the city government is the intermediary between the local grassroots organisations and the Guangxi government.
As the party that works closely with the grassroots organisations (such as business associations or think tank community), the Nanning government can relay the inputs from these entities to the Guangxi leadership, especially on ways to improve and innovate the organisational works of CAEXPO, CABIS and PBGEC Forum.
From a long-term perspective, such feedback role that is afforded to the Nanning government is bound to reform the operations of these events and thereby, boost their effectiveness.
Likewise, the Nanning city government’s connecting role can also be extended to the individual ASEAN countries’ consulate-generals, student and alumni associations, scholars and business communities that are based in the city.
As the parties that have the local knowledge and affinities with Nanning, the assistance from these parties will be vital in adding values to these annual events.
They may be in the forms of the establishment of working partnerships as well as network opportunities with potential ASEAN partners for businesses, brainstorming and policy-making purposes. All these will benefit the long-term developments of CAEXPO, CABIS and PBGEC Forum.
By all means, the Nanning’s case has clearly shown that it is no longer adequate for us to view China-ASEAN cooperation from both Beijing and Guangxi’s perspectives.
For one, the high level of decentralisation of the Chinese administrative powers has certainly empowered the lower level of governments which included the Nanning city government, to participate in international affairs.
And despite being responsible to both the Chinese central and Guangxi’s governments, there is still ample room for the Nanning city government to play its own strategic roles in China-ASEAN cooperation.
Hence, it is timely for us to start approaching China-ASEAN cooperation beyond Beijing’s diplomacy with ASEAN countries.
Lee Chee Leong is PhD Candidate at the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash
University (Malaysia Campus). An observer on China’s sub-state actors’ participation in regional affairs, he is also the Visiting Scholar at the School of Politics and Public Administration, Guangxi University for Nationalities (GXUN) based in Nanning.
S. K. Chia is Researcher in Anbound Malaysia, a subsidiary of Anbound China which is a leading private think tank based in Beijing. The think tank is also a consultancy firm specializing in China-ASEAN cooperation. For any feedback, please contact: