ASEAN’s China Challenge

Will a rising China confronted by energy and economic concerns try to impose its will on Southeast Asia?

Since China departed from its revisionist path in the 1970s, Asia has largely enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace and stability from major conflict. However, as Prof. Hugh White at the Australian National University among others has pointed out:  ‘Economic growth (now) is eroding the foundations of the regional order’ that arose from accommodation of China. This, he suggests, negatively impacts the ability of the region to sustain long-term peace and stability. To avert a systemic breakdown, states will need to construct a new order and then adopt it in a peaceful manner. This may or may not require the construction of a new formal regional security architecture, something that has so far proved elusive. Either way, regional peace and stability will require states—particularly major powers—to accept that ‘international peace is more important than any other national objective.’

Analysts suggest that rising powers usually emerge as revisionist rather than status quo powers in the international system, as this provides an opportunity to extract the greatest redistribution of power from the existing major powers. Given the emergence of China, the question therefore arises of whether or not it will seek to develop a new order in partnership or competition with other major powers. The implications of this decision will be significant for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which lacks the means to challenge a revisionist China outright and so seeks to evolve the current order in a way that accommodates China, but doesn’t allow it to establish regional hegemony.

So what will China do? The answer depends on whether or not the current regime will be able to accept the premise that international peace is more important than any other national objective. To date, China has advanced a number of core interests that it ‘essentially considers nonnegotiable and is likely willing to use military force to protect.’ These include Chinese sovereignty, socioeconomic development, and territorial integrity with respect to Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang. There are also signs that China may consider its South China Sea claims as core interests despite its hesitancy to say so publicly. Although China regularly states that it maintains a preference for peace and stability on its periphery, this hasn’t been presented as a core interest.

From the perspective of ASEAN, socioeconomic development should be of particular concern. This core interest suggests that China reserves the right to use force to protect the economic conditions that ensure regime legitimacy. These probably include China’s energy security and regional strategic lines of communication. Given the vast economic value of the South China Sea and the Mekong River, ASEAN should be concerned over the possibility that China could use force to seize its member states’ economic assets to help insulate the regime from domestic instability, especially during periods of exceptional domestic crisis. Despite recent efforts to pursue peaceful resolution, the South China Sea therefore remains at particular risk given China’s ongoing assertion of sovereignty over its claims.

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Regional order is further strained by significant increases in China’s capacity to prosecute symmetric and asymmetric aggression in support of its core interests:

Military Modernization: After quintupling defence spending in real terms since the mid 1990s, China has achieved military modernization at a rate that has outpaced ASEAN member states, including by developing anti-ship ballistic missiles and stealth fighters. According to analyst Richard Bitzinger, it also appears to be pursuing ‘an information-led technologies revolution in military affairs.’  With its increasing projection of naval and air assets into the South China Sea and beyond, China’s military modernization is having a direct impact on ASEAN’s security interests.

Information Operations: In 2009, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission warned Congress that ‘China is building its cyber warfare capabilities and using the growing technical abilities to collect US intelligence through a sophisticated and long-term computer attack campaign.’ Such capabilities represent a serious threat to ASEAN member states, many of whom lack the resources to combat this threat.

Mekong River Development: China’s development of more than a dozen major dams on the Mekong’s main stream threatens, as the Stimson Center notes, to: ‘imperil food security and livelihoods, threaten domestic stability, and put great stress on still distrustful regional relationships.’ Furthermore, by controlling the upstream flow of the river, China would have the capacity to coerce downstream ASEAN member states.

Such measures not only increase China’s coercive capabilities vis-à-vis ASEAN, but also slowly shift the regional balance of power toward China. Given weakening regional order, this in turn increases the insecurity of ASEAN’s status quo states, which are hedging in part against China’s rise through their own military modernization programmes and increased bilateral military relations with external powers, including the United States, Australia, Japan, and India.

While Southeast Asia will certainly confront its own internal security issues—particularly conflicts between member states, separatist conflicts, and non-traditional security concerns—China’s rise will probably be the biggest factor influencing ASEAN’s peace and stability in the next two decades. Should China demonstrate a sincere willingness to increase transparency in its military, resolve extra-territorial disputes through multilateral bodies (for example, South China Sea through ASEAN and Mekong River development through the Mekong River Commission), deepen ASEAN-China cooperation on transnational security matters (such as transnational crime), and support the development of a more formal regional dispute resolution mechanism based upon international law, then the transition to a new regional order could accommodate a rising China while at the same time reducing the threat of regional instability and ensuring ASEAN remains master of its own fate.

However, should China embark upon another path, then a regional balance of power system could take hold, one which analysts fear may prove onerous on both China and other regional powers and reduce stability and security in Southeast Asia.

Which path China pursues likely will depend upon both a combination of domestic energy security and economic growth concerns, and also the willingness or otherwise of the United States and other major powers to accept a new regional order that cedes significant power and influence to China in Southeast Asia.