HANOI – China’s rise has altered the dynamics within the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and across Asia, as was on display at recently concluded summits in Hanoi.
Chinese naval expansion and increasingly assertive claims to disputed maritime areas in the East and South China Seas has prompted Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and others to reaffirm their enthusiasm for America’s security umbrella, after some ambivalence in recent years.
Japan and India, China’s main Asian rivals, are increasingly looking to each other, and to Southeast Asia, as a hedge against
China’s rise, which has taken a hard turn in recent months. Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh met after the Hanoi summits, which were overshadowed by the mudslinging between the Chinese and Japanese delegations.
“Prime Minister Kan was keen to understand how India engages China,” Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said after that meeting. As well as increasing ties with Japan, India’s slow-to-action “Look East” policy, which has brought the self-proclaimed world’s largest democracy into disrepute over its feting of the Myanmar junta, is likely to be enhanced in coming years, as highlighted in a statement issued after the India-ASEAN summit.
In recent months, China has alarmed countries in Southeast and East Asia with some remarkably strident Freudian slips, which wary neighbors have interpreted as the hegemonic aspirations behind Beijing’s “peaceful rise” rhetoric. Some influential commentators, including American Walter Russell Mead, have made the historical analogy with post-Bismarck Germany, which famously, and disastrously, abandoned the Iron Chancellor’s relatively cautious diplomacy for a more strident and clumsy approach under Kaiser Wilhelm II.
In July, China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi reminded Southeast Asian countries that China is a big country. This not-so-subtle language amplified alarm bells set off when US officials leaked Chinese statements that the South China Sea is viewed by Beijing as a “core interest”, a term usually used to describe its claims over Taiwan and Tibet. ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, and non-ASEAN Taiwan, all have competing claims in the maritime area.
According to the statement released after the ASEAN-China Summit last weekend, Beijing is committed to “the full and effective implementation of the DOC [Declaration on the Conduct of Parties, a stillborn deal between the stakeholders first mooted in 2002] in the South China Sea” and will work with ASEAN states “toward the eventual conclusion, on the basis of consultations and consensus, of a code of conduct”.
The next test of China’s intentions will come in a meeting on the DOC scheduled for December, which will show whether or not it is committed to a multilateral solution to the South China Sea impasse. To date, Beijing has insisted on dealing with the issue on a bilateral basis with individual ASEAN states.
Key shipping lanes run through the South China Sea, the second-most used sea-lane in the world. These run close to the potentially oil-rich Spratly and Paracel Islands. The Spratlys are claimed by Vietnam, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan. The Paracels are claimed by Vietnam and China, with the latter dispute leading Beijing to threaten US oil companies seeking to find potential seabed resources near the islands.
Vietnam and the Philippines ran a joint effort to establish a common ASEAN position on the South China Sea at the Hanoi summit, countering China’s efforts to deal with rival claimants to the waterway on a unilateral basis. Hanoi, which refers to the South China Sea as the East Sea, announced last weekend
that it will open its Cam Ranh base to foreign navies, giving them direct access to the South China Sea.
In recent years, Beijing has been lauded for a so-called “charm offensive” in Southeast Asia, and elsewhere, winning friends through investment, loans and grants, while offering development aid minus the governance and human-rights strings that Western donors usually attach. With the US focusing on democracy promotion and resource-sapping wars in the Middle East, even Asian allies such as the Philippines and Thailand appeared to drift.
United States President Barack Obama’s administration promised to rectify the perceived disengagement, even as the economic pendulum has swung more decisively in China’s direction. ASEAN and China are almost one year into a new free trade agreement, which came into force on January 1. Trade and investment were another key focus for the China-ASEAN plank of the Hanoi meetings last weekend, with Beijing clearly keen to distract attention from its perceived diplomatic missteps of recent weeks.
However, the political divides seem to be growing. Vietnam, which has modeled its governance system – mixing economic liberalism with a one-party state – on China’s, was moved to express its hopes for a free and fair election in Myanmar on November 7. China, in contrast, has described the election as an internal matter for the military dictatorship, and is lobbying at the United Nations to prevent the creation of a commission of inquiry to look into alleged war crimes perpetuated by the ruling junta.
Hanoi has skillfully used the China card to court Japanese, Russian and American investors, with Tokyo confirming that it will seek so-called “rare earth” minerals in Vietnam after China was accused of cutting exports of the materials to Japan in response to a war of words over the arrest of a Chinese sea captain near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Intel, Boeing and Microsoft all announced new investments and partnerships in Vietnam over the past week.
The clear endorsement of the Obama administration was visible in the presence of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Boeing and Microsoft signings, after which she proposed US mediation in the China-Japan row, which is being closely watched in Southeast Asia. Spokespersons for both the Philippines and Indonesia told journalists in Hanoi that while ASEAN or its member states would not comment on bilateral issues between China and Japan, they expressed concern over the dispute.
Obama will escape the domestic crucible next week to visit Japan, India, Indonesia and South Korea, which are all to a greater or lesser degree part of the embryonic coalition coming together to cope with China’s rise. Whether China has now crossed a Wilhelmine Rubicon is still unclear, as Beijing retains important investment and economic aces to be played if it wants to redeem its “soft power” credentials.
Chinese soldiers are currently in Thailand for joint military exercises and both countries recently agreed to collaborate on a rail network from China’s southern Yunnan province, through Laos and Thailand, and further south to Malaysia. As the world leader in high-speed trains, Beijing can contribute directly to ASEAN’s “connectivity” goals as it seeks to enhance its own trade infrastructure across the region.
How this affects the re-emerging Southeast Asian perception that China is as much a security threat as economic ally remains to be seen. Just as Beijing might see anti-China moves in the recent spate of meetings between many of its neighbors, China’s zeal to underwrite a region-wide transport and communications infrastructure upgrade might be taken as an attempt to give Beijing more leverage over – and easier access to – its smaller neighbors.
Simon Roughneen is a foreign correspondent. His website is www.simonroughneen.com.