From 1954 to 1977, the West formed and engaged in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization to ensure Southeast Asia’s protection against the expansion of Communism. At that time, it was Russian communism. This organization collapsed long ago, but in the face of a renewed push by China to gain influence in Southeast Asia, the Quad and other formulations are being put in place to counter the Communist Party of China’s aggressive moves to deepen and expand their influence in ASEAN. The narrative of China’s economic centrality to the region is thus being challenged in the postCovid world. The fact is that China today faces significant levels of mistrust in the region. This needs to be understood to gain a correct perspective on China’s dual presence in the region, focused on economic ingress coupled with military colonialism.
China despite having contributed in a huge manner to the regional economy is viewed with distrust. This is one of the major findings of a recent survey conducted by Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. It shows that China is the least trusted country in the region. The survey lauds the US as the secondmost trusted partner, after Japan and states, “Japan remains the most trusted major power among Southeast Asians, with 54.2% of the respondents’ expressing confidence in Japan to “do the right thing” to provide global public goods, followed by the US (52.8%), and the EU (48.5%). Of those who express distrust towards China (58.1%), 49.6% fear that China could use economic and military power to threaten their country’s interest and sovereignty.”
Significantly, the survey notes that ASEAN is generally worried about China’s (76.4%) growing regional political and strategic influence, albeit with a slight decrease from 86.5% last year. In contrast, respondents welcomed ASEAN’s (80.1%) and the US’ (62.6%) growing regional political and strategic influence. The greatest acceptance for China’s influence comes from Cambodia (54.1%), while Brunei, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam, strongly support a growing US influence. What lies at the bottom of this generic mistrust of China? Maritime and territorial disputes could be one reason. However, the problem goes deeper and can be traced to China’s disregard for the values autonomy and inclusivity. China’s regional strategy is driven by the flawed assumption of how diplomacy works in Southeast Asia. China is correct to assume that regional nations prioritize public good and economic development. However, what China overlooks is that Southeast will not trade their autonomy to secure economic objectives alone.
Understanding the aspirations of each nation in Southeast Asia and as a collective whole is a necessity if one is to make sense of its relations with China. Historically, Southeast Asian nations have sought putting in place an open and inclusive regional order, within which individual autonomy can be maximized. China, however, insists that countries in the region restrict foreign (i.e., Western) military presence in the South China Sea and assures to undertake many other measures to make the region exclusive to its influence. China should abandon the notion that it can “buy” Southeast Asian countries with economic goods and political jargon.
There is little doubt that China’s economic influence in the region is overwhelming. However, it is often forgotten that Chinese economic engagement has run in parallel with military expansionism. Significantly, China’s trade volume with ASEAN nearly doubled to US$ 878 billion in 2021 from US$443 billion in 2013. Simultaneously, China has erected over 3,200 acres of artificial landmass and militarized three islands in the South China Sea (SCS) since 2013. This dual track strategy is aimed at inducing ASEAN to engage economically, while forcing them to give up their strategic autonomy. China’s strategy, simply put, aims to amplify its economic ingress while simultaneously trying to subdue other problematic aspects of its behaviour, including in the SCS. With the passage of time, the consequences of China’s actions have resulted in the opposite and generated a negative image.
Southeast countries have seen how China has behaved with other countries, including imposition of sanctions against Australia. Further, closer scrutiny of its actions in the SCS, makes it apparent that China cannot be trusted. Recall that despite the 2016 International Arbitral Tribunal ruling that China had no historical rights to areas within the EEZ of Southeast Asia, Beijing continued expansion of its maritime activities. Claimant states are also concerned about the controversial Coast Guard law (January 2021) which allows the Chinese Coast Guard to fire on foreign vessels in its claimed waters.
The other aspect of note is China’s strategy to create an impression of Southeast Asia being under its sphere of influence. This narrative building is led by President Xi Jinping who has coined several diplomatic slogans that stress “commonality” between partners, including the “Community of Common Destiny” and, recently, the “Global Security Initiative.” These phrases, in the perception of the ASEAN, are more an attempt by China to build a partnership that puts the region under Beijing’s control. China may be a big brother, but ASEAN has not forgotten Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s comment, in 2010, that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”
The ISEAS-Yusof Ishak survey provides useful strategic insights into what drives the region. China needs to understand what the priorities that ASEAN has and gives importance to. Economic engagement, development initiatives and big promises of aid and assistance including through the BRI, and large numbers of Covid-19 vaccines supply did capture the ASEAN imagination. However, if China is serious, it should try and gain the trust of ASEAN nations while upholding the key principles that govern the international order such as the rule of law, promotion of good governance and strengthening of human rights. With Xi Jinping at the helm, this appears to be a tall task, one that may be more of a dream than a practical proposal.