Recently, the still-raging Omicron variant has led to a sharp surge of infections in East Asia, further distancing us from a future free of Covid-19. Slowed economic growth has made it harder to keep up people’s living standards.

The big picture gets gloomier. Traditional security issues are complicated by new ones, giving rise to more uncertainties. Perhaps it has to be admitted that East Asian cooperation has again come to a crossroads in the complex regional and international landscape.

Yet solutions offered by various countries differ. For China, it firmly believes that multilateralism remains the “master key” to challenges faced by East Asia as well as the anchor for regional peace and prosperity.

Peace and security, a must for development and prosperity, remain the shared aspirations of people in the region. Then what shall and could be done?

We regional countries need to serve as the builders and guardians of peace in the region. We need to pursue dialogue instead of confrontation, build partnerships instead of alliances and make concerted efforts to address the various negative factors that might threaten or undermine peace.

Moreover, we need to champion sincere dialogue, practical cooperation, openness and inclusiveness. We need to fend off security risks and actively explore a regional security architecture.

Having stood against power politics and hegemony all along, China is as steadfast as always in safeguarding the enduring peace of the region together with our neighbours. China will never seek hegemony or a sphere of influence, less still will it bully other countries.

As victory over Covid-19 and economic recovery remain the common priority for the region’s countries, there is much more we can do together.

For instance, it is of paramount importance to stand in solidarity, share information and strengthen joint prevention and control. The strategic significance of vaccines cannot be overemphasised. Cooperation in vaccine research and development, production and distribution requires our concerted endeavours, to make vaccines truly accessible and affordable for everyone.

Openness is the sure way for sustained East Asia cooperation. Open regionalism and free trade are conducive to the next phase of regional economic integration. True multilateralism means inclusiveness rather than exclusion, integration rather than decoupling. The sheer obsession with high standards and pursuit of dominance in regional economic agendas, in disregard of openness and inclusiveness, will lead the region nowhere. Free trade prevails when it fits the situation on the ground in East Asia.

Diversity and inclusiveness are embedded in East Asia’s DNA. Be it the political systems, religions, cultures or models of development, East Asia is well known for its immense diversity, even since ancient times. It has been openness that guides the regional economic integration. It has been coordination and consultation on an equal footing that drives the ASEAN-led regional cooperation. And it has been inclusiveness that underpins an open and non-exclusive East Asia family.

Those who are preoccupied with an ideology-driven and value-oriented mindset risk severely undermining the foundations of cooperation in East Asia and perhaps would find themselves the least wanted by the region’s countries. Unfortunately, the self-claimed “beacon” would eventually find itself unnecessary and unhelpful in this part of the world, as each and every nation here has its own way of shining.

When it comes to East Asian cooperation, China and ASEAN have been the backbone. China unswervingly supports ASEAN centrality in the regional architecture and unswervingly supports ASEAN in playing a leading role in regional affairs. China is proud to have made significant contributions to East Asian cooperation. The development of China, a major opportunity for the region, is in no way a “challenge” as painted by some other countries.

East Asian cooperation has been inexhaustibly powered by the steady and sound growth of China-ASEAN relations. China will, as always, unswervingly see ASEAN as a high priority in its neighborhood diplomacy and unswervingly support ASEAN unity and community building. Last year, President Xi Jinping and leaders of ASEAN member states jointly announced the establishment of a comprehensive strategic partnership between China and ASEAN, identifying fields and measures of cooperation and thus charting the course forward. The new milestone will inject strong impetus into China-ASEAN ties.

The tremendous progress of cooperation between China and ASEAN speaks for itself. For instance, our $878.2 billion of two-way trade in 2021, with a growth rate of 28.1 per cent, enables us to remain each other’s largest trading partner. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that came into effect on the very first day of 2022 ushers regional free trade into a new era. Major infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative are delivering real dividends to local people. The China-Laos railway that started operation at the end of last year is serving as a fresh channel of transport between China and ASEAN.

Yet against the prevailing trend of cooperation regionwide, an updated Indo-Pacific Strategy has caught our attention in recent days. Dominated by the Cold War mentality, the strategy uses an easy excuse of the “China threat” and is in pursuit of geopolitical rivalry. Be it the five objectives or the action plan, people do not need to make an effort to discover its hidden agenda of containing China and defending hegemony.

On paper, the “strategy” is about a free and open region. In reality, it is busy with building regional blocs such as AUKUS and the Quad.

On the one hand, it talks about bolstered regional security. On the other, it is about reinforcing deterrence by helping an ally with nuclear submarines and risking the region with potential nuclear proliferation.

On the one hand, it looks to regional prosperity. Yet on the other, it undermines the ASEAN-centered regional cooperation architecture by driving a wedge among countries with its attempt to instigate confrontation, thus seriously threatening the fruits and prospects of regional cooperation.

At the crossroad, it is worth pondering, more than ever, the course and direction ahead. One thing is for sure. China will continue to keep up with the trend of the times, remain focused on improving people’s livelihoods and safeguarding regional peace and development, guided by the spirit of building a global community with a shared future, China will remain as steadfast as ever in championing multilateralism and working together with ASEAN toward an even brighter future of East Asian cooperation.

Deng Xijun is Chinese ambassador to ASEAN