By Nicholas Cheung
It is never easy to compromise when it comes to building up influence in such a strategically important region of the world
With China’s rising economic and political dominance in the 21st century, it is inevitable that ASEAN—the abbreviation of the inter-governmental organisation known as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, consisting of ten states—will look to benefit from it, largely due due to geographical proximity and a lucrative Chinese market with its staggering population of 1.4 billion. Xi Jinping, leader of China since 2013, is a strong advocate for China’s increased involvement in international institutions, like the United Nations (UN), which could act as an alternative source of support for developing countries that had been alienated from the Western-dominated world order. Simultaneously, the presidency of Donald Trump from 2016-2020, particularly his infamous withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—a trade deal , which was initially started under the previous Obama Presidency to counteract China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific—presented grand opportunities for Xi to expand its influence in ASEAN. Because of President Trump’s four years of ‘America First policy’ that downplayed the importance ASEAN countries, coupled with the limited achievements of the West in resolving political issues in the 2010s, China is seen as the most influential power across ASEAN according to a poll from respondents across eight ASEAN countries by ISEAS-Yusof Isak Institute, a Singaporean think tank.
Mr. Xi’s drive has seen results in ASEAN. Firstly, Laos and Cambodia, both economically backward countries, have signed numerous trade deals and agreements with China. Infamously, Laos has agreed on the construction of a £5.85 billion cross-border railway with China from Kunming to the Laotian capital of Vientiane. This is set to open at the end of 2021 and is aimed to facilitate trade and tourism growth for Laos, a predominantly agricultural landlocked and mountainous country with limited access to the outside world. As for Cambodia, under the quasi-dictatorship of leader Hun Sen, has drove Cambodia entirely towards Xi’s orbit given the West’s hesitance to invest in the country due to its poor human rights records. In response, China stepped in by providing Cambodia with a string of infrastructure investments, which observers feel has subjected Cambodia to a ‘debt trap’. Secondly, the Thai military coup of 2014 under Prayut Chan-ocha and the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines in 2016 demonstrated how the West has effectively lost their firm grip of influence in ASEAN, because both countries have traditionally been in the US-led world order as both have previously signed military pacts with the US. Their new leaders have welcomed Chinese influence with open arms, as both leaders were tired of the West of constantly enforcing neo-imperialism on peripheral countries. Thirdly, states such as Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia are wary of China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia but are unwilling to side with the West as they do not want to take sides in case of a potential conflict. Furthermore, the military coup in Myanmar and the failure of the UN Security Council and ASEAN to condemn it meant China can see the weakness of the current world order to China. In sum, the balance of power in Southeast Asia seems to be shifting towards China.
Despite China’s seemingly successful drive for influence in ASEAN, its grip is not as secure as one might think. Throughout the Xi leadership, China has engaged in wolf-warrior diplomacy, a colloquial term to describe Chinese diplomats lashing out at any statements perceived to vilify China’s image or its people, against any country, politician and celebrity alike. In the South China Sea, a strategically important area where over a third of global shipping bypasses and contains abundant natural resources, China claims suzerainty over it, saying that it has historical rights over the region. However, states like Vietnam and the Philippines are at odds with China as they believe parts of the maritime territory is their own territorial waters, and their claims are backed by international bodies like the UN and states such as the US and Australia. In response to this, China openly lashed out by claiming that the West is ‘interfering in Chinese politics’ and that it will take serious action to anything deemed to harm ‘Chinese interests’. This is detrimental to China’s image, as its aggressive behaviour denotes that it is not secure about its position, and that it views its ASEAN neighbours as less important than itself. It can cause ASEAN states to become hesitant in seeking closer ties with China as they are never certain what actions may cause the juggernaut to lose temper.
This decade is a low point for relations between China and the West. The COVID-19 pandemic and its actions towards Hong Kong, Taiwan and its Uyghur minority undid decades of efforts that previous Western leaders had done to welcome China’s growing participation in global affairs since Deng Xiaoping began his reforms of China’s economy in 1976. Western leaders, noticeably Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and their cabinets actively called on their allies to reduce economic and trade dependence on China citing threats to national security. Their concerns over Chinese aggression are evident in the formation of the AUKUS trilateral military pact that is aimed to uphold peace, freedom of navigation and collective security in the Indo-Pacific Region. The pact will help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines and upgrade its military capabilities, which experts see is a bold and risky move made to counter Chinese military expansion. In response to this, China has called this move ‘a blatant retreat from international cooperation’ and ‘act of aggression. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi says China will not hesitate to strike back at any moves that hurt Chinese interests; it seems China and the West are drifting towards a new Cold War.
The AUKUS pact’s effects and China’s hawkish response are reverberated the strongest in ASEAN. ASEAN states are walking on a tightrope as both the West and China locking horns against each other, causing a reluctance to pick sides. Most ASEAN states have trade relations with both sides in addition to defense agreements with the West, effectively putting ASEAN’s principle of non-interference at odds. Subsequently, ASEAN is divided upon the introduction of the AUKUS into pro-China, neutral and pro-West camps. Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand—countries most reliant on China—have chosen to side with it, fearing economic losses. Indonesia and Malaysia, the neutral camp, wary of the intention of both sides, see the AUKUS as destabilising and irrational, citing concerns of a nuclear war between China and the West. Finally, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines, concerned with growing Chinese influence have welcomed the AUKUS pact, as they see it as a security guarantee towards a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Where ASEAN will head really depends on how the current issues can be resolved by both competing sides. But, if things continue the way they are now, ASEAN is likely to lose its importance in the dawn of a second Cold War between China and the West.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.