The burgeoning US-China contest for the minds and hearts of Asian nations is stressing and straining some countries’ domestic politics and posing increasingly difficult choices for their leadership.
How and why is this so and what are some of the consequences?
In the past, Asian countries were often prioritized by US analysts and policy makers as to their degree of pro American-ness. But now they are increasingly being assessed as to the kind and degree of accommodation to China. The US cannot match China’s economic prowess and largesse and seems to hope that its political, social and economic systems and –more importantly– its values will be sufficient to keep much of Asia in its camp. But this is increasingly proving to be a false hope. So the U.S. is falling back on its tried and true advantage—dominant military power and the threat of its use. But even in this sphere China is making rapid advances and the looming specter of its eventual domination of the region is progressively stimulating hedging and even forcing some Asian countries to consider choosing between the two.
Indeed, China has made considerable advances in military to military relations with Southeast Asian countries, previously almost exclusively dominated by the U.S. and its allies. On 27-28 October 2018, China, Malaysia and Thailand implemented their first ever tri-lateral military exercise in the strategic Malacca Strait. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/malaysia-naval-10182018180437.html From 22-28 October, China and ASEAN implemented the first China -ASEAN maritime exercises. https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/china-asean-should-hold-more-exercises-ng-eng-hen The U.S. and Australia were not invited. The participation of Southeast Asian nations implied their acknowledgement of China’s right to a military role in the region. Chinese State Councilor and National Defense Minister Wei Fenghe hailed the exercise “as a milestone event that will showcase the resolve and determination of China and ASEAN to safeguard regional peace and stability.” http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1123911.shtml
China is making advances on other politico-military fronts. China and ASEAN are making some progress in the negotiation of a Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/asean-agrees-to-guidelines-on-air-encounters-boosts-counter-10843358 China has proposed a clause stating that “the Parties shall not hold joint military exercises with countries from outside the region, unless the parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection”. Presumably it believes it can garner support for the proposal within ASEAN.
China has also stepped up its efforts to increase its political inroads in Asia. The Hoover Institution has published a report detailing how China has tried to influence domestic politics in many countries including in Asia. https://www.hoover.org/research/chinese-influence-american-interests-promoting-constructive-vigilance Some of China’s actions were deemed offensive and even illegal by the target countries. Indeed, . Australia has begun to take measures to restrain China’s influence on its domestic body politic. But China is biting back and if it is going to reset the terms of its engagement with China, it will have to accept strains on the bilateral economic relationship. The U.S. has historically engaged in similar practices– and worse –in many countries including in Asia – – and is probably still doing so. During the Cold War, some of the tools it used to influence countries included Voice of America and Radio Free Asia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voice_of_America, covert operations, and support for assassinations and even coups in countries whose regimes it did not like, like South Vietnam and Indonesia. That does not make what China is doing right – only that it has come somewhat late to this aspect of realpolitik and it is rather clumsy and insensitive in its approach.
There is more stress and strain coming. The U.K. has announced that it will establish a permanent naval base in Southeast Asia – perhaps in Singapore or Brunei. https://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/asia/article/2180724/britain-risks-raising-tensions-military-base-southeast China likely sees this as a declaration by one of its former colonial masters to become part of the current US strategic cabal to confront, constrain and contain it. Already, much to China’s chagrin, a British warship has challenged China’s claimed baselines around the Paracel Islands. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-china-southchinasea-exclusive/exclusive-british-navy-warship-sails-near-south-china-sea-island
But it is not only China that would likely view such a development as neocolonialist. It would likely be opposed by nationalists in both the host of the base and the region. Moreover it would raise strong suspicions among neighbors as to the host’s long term intentions towards both themselves and China. More specifically, the base and the host would immediately become a target for China in a conflict. At the least the host would have difficult political and economic relations with China for the foreseeable future.
The added stress on ASEAN could be fatal. It is already riven by pro-China and pro-U.S. factions and increasing pressure to choose between the two. A new base in the region for a US ally could be the strategic straw that breaks the back of ASEAN unity.
The uncertainty created by the administration of US President Donald J. Trump is encouraging many nations to hedge their bets. A major question is whether or not the U.S. can develop a “strategic, nuanced, and long-term policy toward China that will effectively engage allies and partners ” rather than the current “America First” approach. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2019/01/20/commentary/world-commentary/u-s-china-rivalry-japan/#.XEjUvlVKj3g
An attempt is the US Congress’s Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) signed into law by President Trump on December 31, 2018. https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/2736/text The Act affirms and advances the US National Security strategy to “develop a long-term strategic vision and comprehensive, multifaceted and principled US policy for the Indo- Pacific region.”Among others, it seeks to improve the defense capacity and resiliency of partner nations to resist coercion and deter and defend against security threats, including foreign military financing; offers a mechanism to conduct bilateral and multilateral engagements, particularly with the United States’ most highly capable allies and partners, to meet strategic challenges, and increases maritime domain awareness programs _ _.”
However, the proof of this approach will be in the pudding. Even this comprehensive response may be too little too late.
Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles and Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China