ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

ASEAN’s China Dilemma

China remains both an economic partner and a threat to the stability of the region.

By Trinh Le for
ASEAN’s China Dilemma
Credit: Flickr/ Prachatai

In a few days, the 35th ASEAN Summit will commence, with the participation of about 3,000 officials and journalists from Southeast Asian countries, China, South Korea, Japan, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and India, among others. The summit serves as a prominent regional and international conference, at which regional leaders discuss various problems and issues while strengthening cooperation with other nations.

Recent developments indicate that rising tensions in the South China Sea are set to dominate talks as top diplomats converge in Bangkok, Thailand starting on October 31. Back in July, a Chinese oil survey vessel entered Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, triggering a three-month standoff between the two communist states, and leading the United States to accuse Beijing of “bullying behavior.” The Chinese vessel, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, just Vietnamese waters on October 24, but the impacts of its activities will be huge for Vietnam and other claimant states. This is the first time China utilized its recently built artificial islands to serve as logistics hubs, allowing Chinese ships to operate for longer periods far away from its nearest maritime base in Hainan. This will of course not be the last such instance, implying Southeast Asian countries will face even more difficulties in dealing with Beijing’s aggressive stance on the maritime disputes.

The discovery that the infamous nine-dash line appeared in a scene in a DreamWorks’ animated film, which was originally due to appear in cinemas in Vietnam, Malaysia, and Philippines, did not help. It increases distrust from Southeast Asian claimants with Beijing’s approach. On the one hand China talks about cooperation and peaceful discussions; on the other hand they implicitly push for their own agenda in the smallest details.

The situation will make it interesting to observe how ASEAN leaders react during this summit. According to the Bangkok Post, the draft of the chairman’s statement shows that ASEAN leaders will express concern over reclamation activities by claimants, while welcoming progress made in ongoing talks on a Code of Conduct (COC) to manage the territorial disputes. “We emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states […] that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea,” the draft reads. Its vague language might disappoint some but given the fact that the draft mentions the current situation at all, it is already a success. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, on a recent trip to Hanoi, even commented that “Some countries should not expect ASEAN to resolve sovereignty disputes” and “ASEAN is not a court.”

In recent years ASEAN has tried to prove its relevance in regional and international matters. One of the themes of this year’s summit is “Partnership,” in which the member states seek to reinforce the ASEAN-centered regional architecture, increase economic cooperation with all countries “with due consideration to balance and benefits for the people,” and enhance the role of the bloc in addressing important global issues.

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In this context, China remains both an economic partner and a threat to the stability of the region, with the South China Sea disputes among Beijing and other claimants yet to be resolved. As a matter of fact, ASEAN foreign ministers now consider China the “most important” dialogue partner of the 10-nation bloc, and ASEAN’s dialogue relations with China “should be the most dynamic and substantive we have in the region.”

However, dialogue is increasingly conducted under the barrel of the gun. China’s naval capabilities have been progressing at breakneck pace, with the recent launch of large-deck amphibious warfare ships, new nuclear and conventional submarines, and “rumors of a steadily larger, more capable aircraft carrier fleet serving as a catalyst for regional competition,” Defense Connect reported. In the last decade, Beijing has outpaced the United States and its allies by building more than 100 warships and increasing the number of highly capable surface combatants and submarines that now make up the People’s Liberation Army Navy. It has also built artificial islands and installed military equipment in the disputed waters. In other words, China recognizes the importance of investments in sea control as the rising superpower seeks to expand its regional ambitions, and ASEAN needs to take this into consideration.

The current U.S.-China trade war might help ASEAN claimants in the short run, as it makes Beijing less likely to use coercive means to resolve territorial disputes. The United States has stepped up its military activity and naval presence in the region in recent years to protect its political, security, and economic interests. Since May 2017, it has conducted six FONOPs in the region. In response to China’s assertive presence in the disputed waters, Japan has also sold military ships and equipment to Vietnam and the Philippines to improve their maritime security capacity. Instead of using direct coercion, China is likely to further advance a maritime Code of Conduct with ASEAN and force other claimants into joint exploration schemes with Beijing. This presents another challenge for ASEAN to take a unified and strong stance against China’s “divide and rule” strategy. The COC negotiation has just finished the first round and will take another two to finish. This will be a lengthy process and ASEAN unity will be rigorously tested throughout.

Regarding trade, at the summit ASEAN leaders are expected to discuss rising trade tensions and ongoing nationalist sentiments, while continuing to negotiate the 16-country free trade pact known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes China but not the United States. Harsh Pant, professor of international relations at King’s College London, observes that it will be tough for the bloc to maintain a balance between the two economic superpowers. “ASEAN is under unusual stress as a result of growing contestation between the U.S. and China. The traditional comfort of having China as an economic partner and the U.S. as security partner is no longer very valid,” Pant told the South China Morning Post. Indeed, ASEAN will need to reassess the relationship with China and its rapidly changing place in the world as the second strongest economy. Balancing the huge economic benefits from trade and at the same time the tremendous maritime threat from its giant neighbor is not easy.

Trinh Le graduated from The University of Melbourne with a Master of Publishing and Communications in 2016. He previously worked as a volunteer reporter for Meld Magazine.