KYOTO – As the world order shifts, with the United States being challenged by the rise of China, leaders in Beijing have begun to readjust their position toward Southeast Asia to strengthen its allies.
More importantly, this is also part of China’s desire to maintain its sphere of influence in the region.
Over 10 years, China has successfully made inroads into several countries in Southeast Asia with the primary aim of manipulating their policies in ways that are beneficial to Chinese interests.
Already, strong ties between China and these states, particularly in mainland Southeast Asia, have had considerable impact on the unity of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). All countries in Southeast Asia are members of ASEAN, with the exception of Timor Leste.
In recent weeks, China has moved a step ahead in reaffirming its eagerness to consolidate bilateral relations with Southeast Asia.
For example, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during his Bangkok trip early this month, extolled Thailand for playing a “significant” role in promoting relations between China and ASEAN.
The two countries agreed to increase bilateral trade to $100 billion by 2015. In 2012, two-way trade stood at nearly $70 billion, as a result of the successful Sino-Thai free trade agreement signed in 2003. Thailand became the first ASEAN country concluding a FTA with China.
Wang, who also paid a visit to Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei, stressed while in Thailand, “The unique Sino-Thai relationship will play an exemplary role in the development of China’s relations with ASEAN.” Thailand is this year the country coordinator of China-ASEAN relations.
Meanwhile, on the sidelines of the Defense Ministers Meeting of ASEAN and its allies, the Thai and Chinese ministers met and pledged to expand their military ties. Marines from the two countries have held a “Blue Strike” joint exercise for two years, with Thailand and China alternately hosting the program designed to counter terrorism. The two countries’ armed forces first kicked off their cooperation in joint drills under the code name “Strike.”
Albeit on a much smaller scale, “Strike” is a copycat of a Thai-U.S. military exercise called “Cobra Gold,” which has remained the oldest and largest operation in the Asia-Pacific region.
Countries like Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar are also happy to welcome China’s increasing economic and political presence in the region because of several benefits to be gained from their partnerships with China.
For instance, China has become a source of political legitimacy for the Myanmar leadership, despite now at a reduced degree since speedy political reforms in Myanmar were initiated. It has remained the biggest investor in Myanmar.
China has invested heavily in impoverished Laos, such as in hydro-electricity projects and through the constructions of dams.
Beijing has forged ties with the Hun Sen regime of Cambodia, pulling the country out of the Vietnamese and Thai orbit.
The intimate ties between Beijing and Phnom Penh could enlighten why ASEAN failed for the first time in 45 years to produce a joint statement. That failure sharply focused attention on disputes in the South China Sea and Cambodia’s cozy relationship with China and its desire to deal with any territorial disputes with ASEAN members on a bilateral basis.
On the other hand, some ASEAN members have chosen to interpret China’s rise in a wider perspective.
Singapore, although possessing enormous economic interests in China, has continued to encourage other powers, particularly the U.S., to re-engage with the region so as to counterbalance the power of China. This call has been well received by Indonesia and Vietnam.
Again this explained why Wang chose to visit both Singapore and Indonesia: mainly to reiterate its amicable policy toward them.
David Shambaugh, in 2005, argued that China’s growing economic and military power, expanding political influence, distinctive diplomatic voice and increasing involvement in regional multilateral institutions are key developments in Asia affairs. China’s new proactive regional posture is reflected in virtually all policy spheres — economic, diplomatic and military —and this parallels China’s increased activism on the global stage.
China’s interests in Southeast Asia are paramount and thus highly protected. Southeast Asian countries have served as lucrative markets for Chinese products, sources of raw materials, investment destinations and tourist attractions. Its cultural links with the region are an unsurpassed asset for the maintenance of China’s influence and the proliferation of its soft power.
Southeast Asia is a passageway and a lifeline for China in accessing its sources of energy in the Middle East.
Strategically the South China Sea represents a major part of China’s maritime interests. Even as China has entered into territorial disputes with some Southeast Asian states, they have all accepted the necessity to resolve the conflict through diplomatic channels, which seems to serve the interest of all parties.
Lastly, the discussion of China’s interests must be done in a large regional context. Southeast Asia has long since been a meeting place of external players. China’s enthusiasm to raise the level of its influence is a direct response to the increasing degree of regional involvement of other powers, including the U.S., Japan, India and, to a certain extent, Australia.
The relationship between China and Southeast Asia can be traced back to the dawn of history; through many points in their interaction, both sides know that their relations were not always equal.
Fast-forwarding to the 21st century, China’s rise has resurrected that memory of unequal relationship. The region has been caught in a dilemma — wanting to benefit from China’s rise but fearing its intensifying military prowess.
Wang’s trip to Southeast Asia was designed not only to re-create a new image for China as a responsible rising power, but also to guarantee its hegemonic status in the region in the face of a changing regional environment.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.