Delivering a special lecture at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) on Thursday, Kao said the Southeast Asian bloc should focus on peace and cooperation, and be open and inclusive in handling ties with both Beijing and Washington.
“We do not want any major power to dominate us. We choose to engage, not isolate … that is why we have comprehensive strategic partnerships with the US and China,” Kao said in a response to an audience question on whether the Association of Southeast Asian Nations could foster closer ties with China without compromising its relations with the US.
Several consuls general of Asean member states in Hong Kong – including Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Myanmar and Cambodia – were present at Thursday’s forum, which was hosted by HKU’s Research Hub on Institutions of China and also attended by students and researchers.
Kao, a former Cambodian minister, later wrapped up his three-day working visit to Hong Kong with a lunch meeting with local trade and industry officials.
Beijing stakes historical claim to nearly the whole of the busy, resource-rich waterway where three other Asean members – Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei – also have competing claims.
Closer US ties have also been a source of friction with China, as Washington – a key security partner for several Asean members – has ramped up defence cooperation in the region in recent years to counter Beijing’s military ambitions.
On September 4, a day before the Asean summit opened in Jakarta, the US military hosted a joint patrol with the Philippines in the South China Sea for the first time, triggering strong condemnation from Beijing.
“We should not magnify one particular issue to overshadow anything else,” Kao told the HKU forum, highlighting the years of fruitful Asean-China cooperation.
“Every partner has its own uniqueness, has its own dynamics, has its own priorities. I think for us moving forward is how we are a team to expand, leverage, and build on what we have achieved,” he said as part of his lecture titled “Shared Future – Towards a Closer Asean-China Community”.
China has been Asean’s biggest trade partner for the past 14 years, while the region is Beijing’s top investment destination.
Last week, test runs began on the Jakarta-Bandung railway, Southeast Asia’s fastest rail link and a US$7.3 billion flagship belt and road project in the region.
He also spoke highly of Hong Kong’s role in serving as a bridge between China and the bloc, encouraging the city not to “overlook” economic opportunities in the bloc.
His words echoed a keynote speech delivered at the 8th Belt and Road Initiative Summit on Wednesday, where he highlighted the value of Hong Kong’s role in linking China with Asean, and urged greater synergy between the belt and road and Asean and Indo-Pacific connectivity plans, to create a more resilient and interconnected region.
“Prosperity is really the very top priority for us,” he said at HKU. “It’s important for Asean to work together with our partners in China, including Hong Kong, to ensure that we continue to build confidence, with strategic trust across the different stakeholders in this region.”