In April 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the Global Security Initiative, a concept that overlays China’s security and defense cooperation with the Global South. Analysts have argued that the GSI will challenge the U.S.-led security alliance, erode values in existing security partnerships, and institutionalize security arrangements in regional organizations. GSI integrates the six commitments found in previous initiatives, such as maintaining sustainability security, respecting sovereignty, and territory.
How effective will the GSI be in Southeast Asia? I suggest that the GSI’s effects will be marginal at best, for four reasons.
First, the GSI ignores the fact that China has been a major source of non-traditional security issues for a good number of Southeast Asian states. In other words, China’s conflicting interests with ASEAN states will mean that the GSI will do nothing about these issues.
In the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia, Chinese militias have been fishing in the exclusive economic zones of several ASEAN states. Competition for fishing stocks, natural resources, and maritime domains happens among several ASEAN countries, but China’s involvement has exacerbated the situation in these seas since 2010.
Similarly, the Chinese Coast Guard has been fending off ASEAN countries in their own EEZs. This was recently highlighted in the Philippines when a Chinese Coast Guard vessel pointed military-grade lasers at Philippine ships. This event set off an anti-Chinese, nationalistic response within the Philippines, prompting current President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. to further increase the country’s security agreements with the United States.
The Philippines has not only agreed to host four new Enhance Defense Cooperation Agreement “bases” within the country but also increased security and defense cooperation with Japan, Australia, and South Korea. All these events occurred despite Marcos’ openly, pro-China predecessor Rodrigo Duterte.
Apart from the Philippines, other Southeast Asian states like Vietnam and Indonesia have increased their military expenditure to guard their maritime domains. Between 2019 and 2021, Vietnam acquired a Boeing Insitu ScanEagle UAV, Beechcraft T-6 Texan II trainer aircraft, and U.S. Coast Guard Hamilton class cutter. Vietnam has also pursued defense cooperation with the Netherlands, India, and Japan.
Indonesia has done similarly by increasingly modernizing its fleets and signing MOUs on maritime cooperation, exchanges, and people-to-people exchanges with the United States.
China has also been a source of other issues for ASEAN countries. The rise of cyber trolls that interfere with the elections of ASEAN states has been an emerging issue. Trolls, which some suspect to be driven by Chinese entities, have appeared in cyberspace in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Many analysts have argued that some Southeast Asian leaders have deployed troll armies to maintain their popularity, unleashing disinformation about global and national politics for years. The Chinese government and its firms may have been complacent in these instances, working with these governments on matters of finance and security cooperation.
Another key problem has been online gambling and cryptocurrency scams, which are now luring ASEAN citizens into debt-bondage employment. Many of the investors and firms are current or previous citizens of the PRC. Previously, online gambling firms went to the Philippines and Cambodia, bringing along hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers, adjacent industries, and also “black market” sectors. Cryptocurrency scams have started luring Southeast Asian citizens, such as Vietnamese, Indonesians, and Filipinos.
The Chinese government does criminalize online gambling. However, the approach by Chinese ministries and agencies has been described as unilateral and untransparent by ASEAN countries. The Chinese government prefers to keep information about online gambling within China, and this makes dealing with online gambling extremely difficult.
Second, the U.S. does not have a direct security stake – territory, maritime domains, exclusive economic zones – in Southeast Asia, making it the guarantor of traditional security. Security agreements, armament sales, and U.S. FONOPs continue. Some Southeast Asian countries rely on U.S. FONOPs to fend off the Chinese coastguard and militia.
In March 2021, over 200 Chinese fishing fleets and Chinese maritime militia started to occupy the Juan Felipe Reef, a group of islands located in the West Philippine Sea. The Chinese Embassy pointed out that the 200 ships were simply fishing ships, taking cover in the islands due to the adverse weather conditions. After a few weeks or so, the ships still had not left, and satellite images provided by the U.S. State Department to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) gave stronger evidence of the illegal fishing activities of the Chinese fishing fleets. On April 13, 2021, an armada of U.S. and Philippine navy ships sailed through the area. In response to the joint U.S. and Philippine ships, most of the Chinese ships dispersed, giving back the reef to the Philippines once again.
U.S. effectiveness in maintaining its security architecture will depend on whether or not it can make headway in the economic areas. In May 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden’s announced that the U.S. and Southeast Asia will have a new era of stronger relations. This announcement was affirmed during last November’s annual bilateral summit between the U.S. and ASEAN. These two events were followed by an increased commitment of $150 million to existing U.S.-ASEAN programs and $7 billion in sustainable infrastructure in Southeast Asia.
The APEC summit in the United States later this year, which includes China, will be another opportunity for the U.S. to institutionalize its security architecture in Southeast Asia.
Third, the effectiveness of Chinese multilateral initiatives depends on the nature of the agreement and the carrots that China is willing to offer. However, the GSI lacks the sort of economic enticements – funding, grants, and others – that made Chinese initiatives generally attractive. So far, the GSI appears to be following the pattern of Chinese pronouncements. That is, Chinese leaders unveil an ambitious national and global strategy that purports to change the existing political and economic arrangements. Yet these national strategies are often vague, relying on Chinese agencies to implement the broader concept. This has been the case in many of China’s broader globally ambitious concepts, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, the China Going Out, and the Westward movement.
And finally, the analysis of GSI’s effects in Southeast Asia focuses on ASEAN as a regional organization. Different ASEAN countries are however concerned with different security interests. For the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei, the South China Sea is one of the most salient security issues at the time. Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia are likely concerned by the “golden triangle” in mainland Southeast Asia. The Myanmar junta will likely ask for further help against insurgents in Myanmar. Singapore will likely be concerned about terrorism, while Indonesia would be interested in keeping the Natuna Islands under Jakarta’s firm control. If ASEAN relies on states to make decisions, the effectiveness of GSI will depend on whether or not these states will agree upon a common course of action.
In sum, the GSI seems to be China’s blueprint for security cooperation. However, so long as China is a direct player in Southeast Asia’s security and defense issues, any gains by the GSI will be marginal. The U.S. appears to be in the best place to maintain its security architecture in Southeast Asia. The effectiveness of GSI and the U.S. security architecture will most likely differ in other regions, in which the Chinese and American roles are switched.