How Chinese Geopolitics harms Southeast Asian Unity

South China Sea has been disputed among a few countries in Asia especially China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. However, it is China that is claiming the lion share of the sea roughly 90% of it. This dispute is not new and it will certainly remain for years to come. One-third of global maritime shipping is through South China Sea which means whoever is in control of it controls the flow of trade. It is estimated that $5.3 trillion worth of goods transit through this sea annually.

Read Geopolitical and Strategic Landscape of South China Sea

China has the world’s second largest economy with over 60 percent of its trade depends on maritime travel; therefore, its economic security is closely linked to the South China Sea. China is surrounded in the East and South by countries which are either less than hospitable or in open tension with. In the East, it is Japan and South Korea with American military bases on their soil. Taiwan is technically part of China, yet the desire to gain independence from the Communist mainland is still strong. Under such circumstances, Chinese leaders understood that in time of war China would be under a complete blockade which would lead to isolation and disruption of the economy. The combined navy of its eastern neighbors plus the American support would be unstoppable over the sea. Because of its economic security under the mercy of foreign navies, in recent years China has increased its defense spending to more than $200 billion seconds only to the United States.

With the commission of its first aircraft carrier Liaoning in 2017 and the announcement of a second ship under construction, China wants to close the gap of imbalance over the sea. In the south, China is bordered by a community of 10 countries of Southeast Asia. This region is where the big question of who controls the sea takes place. China wants to put the South China Sea under its sovereignty so that it will have a complete control over maritime trades, and maintain a balance of influence with its neighboring countries. Vietnam has had a long history of conflict with China. This country rebelled and overthrew imperial China in the 10th century ended 1000 years of Chinese rule, and thus remains suspicious of its northern neighbor ever since. Despite the fact that both countries are ruled by communist parties, there are some conflicts of interest between them.

Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979 was a clear example of friction as China supported the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia while Vietnam invaded the country and put a new Cambodian government friendly to Hanoi. Both sides claimed victory in this war. The United States considers the South China Sea to be international water with freedom of navigation for all countries. This different perspective pushes it into establishing military bases throughout the regions especially in the Philippines and maintaining friendly relations with countries in dispute with China. In light of this issue, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) could not form a collective stand. Some of its members support a deeper US involvement to counter Chinese influence while others are skeptical of this by pointing to the fact that China is the biggest trade partner in the region. ASEAN has not been able to issue a joint statement condemning Chinese land grab because of its member states’ unwillingness to pursue a common goal. For Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia, the solution is to internationalize the dispute as it will bring international institutions and outside powers into the region to which China will not be able to freely expand its influence in the sea. A joint statement from ASEAN would, therefore, represent a collective voice against Chinese ambition in the region. On the other hand, member states which are not affected by this issue such as Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar reject the attempt to internationalize the dispute for a number of reasons. China is the biggest trade partner. Upsetting a major power that their economy depends on is out of the question. Additionally, Cambodia, for an instant, receives millions of dollars’ worth of aid from Beijing. These aid go into infrastructure development, education sector, economic growth, financial market, and defense. It is natural that the biggest trade partner and aid donor has influence over the foreign policy of Southeast Asian countries. One thing worth noticing is the fact that US aid comes with conditions such as democratic reform, human right commitment, and it is natural that the biggest trade partner and aid donor has influence over the foreign policy of Southeast Asian countries. One thing worth noticing is the fact that US aid comes with conditions such as democratic reform, human right commitment, and the principle of freedom. Such conditions find little appeal for countries ruled by authoritarian regimes. Cambodia and Laos can always turn to China as an alternative because Chinese aids come with no conditions. Disunity within the bloc creates tension between its member states. China sees it differently as an opportunity to expand its influence not only in the South China Sea but onto the region as a whole. It is arguably easy for China to prevent the community to unite against its ambition by simply using financial means to its advantage. Moreover, the political development in Thailand is indicating a warming up to China as its military government is criticized by the United States, which is its own ally, as undemocratic and authoritarian. If more and more member states of ASEAN are turning to Beijing, it is very unlikely that the bloc can form any collective stand in the face of Chinese expansion. It is now clear that the community is divided into two camps: the American camp and the Chinese camp. China does not show any willingness in stopping the building of artificial islands and militarization of South China Sea. With the increase in military spending of China, Southeast Asian countries find themselves intimidated by People’s Liberation Army and, therefore, draw the attention of other world powers into the region. Whoever controls this sea will control the flow of Asian maritime trade. With both sides trying to gain upper hand on the negotiation table, the arms race is heating up. Where would this attitude lead to? There are a few predictions of this. On the one hand, it would force either

China sees it differently as an opportunity to expand its influence not only in the South China Sea but onto the region as a whole. It is arguably easy for China to prevent the community to unite against its ambition by simply using financial means to its advantage. Moreover, the political development in Thailand is indicating a warming up to China as its military government is criticized by the United States, which is its own ally, as undemocratic and authoritarian. If more and more member states of ASEAN are turning to Beijing, it is very unlikely that the bloc can form any collective stand in the face of Chinese expansion. It is now clear that the community is divided into two camps: the American camp and the Chinese camp.

Read China’s One Belt and One Road initiative

China does not show any willingness in stopping the building of artificial islands and militarization of South China Sea. With the increase in military spending of China, Southeast Asian countries find themselves intimidated by People’s Liberation Army and, therefore, draw the attention of other world powers into the region. Whoever controls this sea will control the flow of Asian maritime trade. With both sides trying to gain upper hand on the negotiation table, the arms race is heating up. Where would this attitude lead to? There are a few predictions of this. On the one hand, it would force either side to come together and solve their differences to prevent major escalation and disruption of peace. On the other hand, it would lead to war and destruction in the region. One way or another it is very likely that the South China Sea dispute will remain for many years to come.

 

writer

Puthyraksmey Yama

student, Political Science and International Relations

Marmara University, Istambul, Turkey.

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