Malaysia’s Anwar Warns US That Constraining China Will ‘Accentuate’ Its Grievances

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Malaysia’s Anwar Warns US That Constraining China Will ‘Accentuate’ Its Grievances

The Malaysian leader said that U.S. leaders need to do more to see the world and the region from China’s perspective.

Malaysia’s Anwar Warns US That Constraining China Will ‘Accentuate’ Its Grievances

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim delivers a speech at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia, March 7, 2024.

Credit: X/Anwar Ibrahim

Yesterday, a day after the close of the special Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia delivered a speech at the Australian National University in Canberra.

The Malaysian leader’s speech ranged over a number of issues, from Western hypocrisy and the war in Gaza to the importance of ASEAN to regional stability and prosperity. Perhaps the most interesting portion of Anwar’s speech was that dealing with the collapse in trust between the United States and China over the past 15 years. In particular, he made the comment that American efforts to constrain and contain China, which were initiated under President Barack Obama, intensified by Donald Trump, and institutionalized by Joe Biden, will only augment the grievances of Chinese leaders – and their desire for an international status commensurate with their growing wealth and power.

“In their eyes, the adverse actions on China’s rise, militarily, economically and technologically, represent nothing less than an attempt to deny their legitimate place in history,” Anwar said of Beijing. “The obstacles being placed against China’s economic and technological advancement will only further accentuate such grievances.”

Anwar went on to say that countries like Australia, Malaysia, and other ASEAN member states, had “a duty to try the utmost to encourage the United States, China, and other major players in the Asia-Pacific to conduct themselves in a manner that is conducive to the enhancement of regional cooperation and economic integration.”

Effectively, Anwar was making the case for “cognitive empathy” – the ability of policymakers “to [put] themselves in the shoes of the world’s various actors and see how the world looks to them” – and the importance of viewing international relations in relational terms. Which is to say, while China certainly bears its share of responsibility for the souring of relations with the U.S., it has also at many points been reacting to decisions made in Washington and other capitals.

This notion of strategic if not moral equivalence is no doubt liable to be dismissed in many Western capitals, but it positions Anwar’s remarks squarely in the median range of Southeast Asian elite opinion. Indeed, his comments at ANU bear a family resemblance to the comments made by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his keynote speech at the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue.

While praising China’s growth as “a tremendous boon, both to itself and to the world,” Lee said that Beijing had to reconcile its victim complex with the reality of its own burgeoning power. China “can no longer expect to be treated in the same way as in the past, when it was much smaller and weaker,” Lee said. He added that the Chinese leadership should seek to resolve maritime disputes “through diplomacy and compromise rather than force or the threat of force.”

At the same time, Lee said that U.S. policymakers had to accept that China would continue to grow, “and that it is neither possible nor wise for them to prevent this from happening.” Instead, he called on Washington to forge “a new understanding that will integrate China’s aspirations within the current system of rules and norms.”

These sorts of arguments might appear hard to square with incidents like that which played out this week in the South China Sea, where Chinese and Philippine vessels once again collided close to Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands. Here, the China Coast Guard (CCG) has maintained a loose de facto blockade for the past six months, harassing Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) ships and supply vessels that are seeking to resupply troops stationed in a grounded warship at the shoal. In an incident captured on video, a high-pressure water cannon fired by the CCG smashed the windscreen of a Philippine supply boat, injuring four Filipino crewmembers.

The lopsided nature of the struggle unfolding in these remote waters, between the sleek white leviathans of the CCG and the small Philippine supply boats, would seem to resist any moral or strategic equivocation. And there is a sound case to be made that the tensions in the South China Sea are largely the result of Chinese actions, grounded in a maximalist and legally invalid claim to nearly the entire waterway.

At the same time, Anwar’s relational perspective can be applied here, too. As Paul Heer of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs wrote recently of growing U.S.-China tensions in the Taiwan Strait, “Beijing’s belligerence [over Taiwan] is itself a response – at least in part – to the erosion of the substance and credibility of ‘our one China policy’ over many years. There is plenty of blame to go around. Confronting this could still avert a conflict that Beijing wants to avert.”

Much the same can be said of the current situation in the South China Sea. Manila’s swift deepening of relations with the U.S. and other regional partners over the past year, which saw the Philippines expand U.S. access to military bases in northern Luzon, has been an understandable response to China’s campaign of aggression. But it has also to some extent been a cause of it. Chinese perceptions that the U.S. is treating the South China Sea as one part of a broader effort to contain Chinese power will only reinforce Beijing’s fears, make a solution more elusive, and increase the likelihood of conflict. Needless to say, Chinese leaders have a corresponding duty to stop viewing the Philippines as a U.S. proxy and treat it as a sovereign nation that is exercising its agency in order to defend its territorial integrity.

While not morally equivalent, both the U.S. and China evince their own variant of strategic narcissism – their tendency to view all international relations through the prism of their own self-perception. And most Southeast Asian political leaders, whose nations benefit from close economic relationships with China and a strong U.S. security presence in the Asia-Pacific, have no real desire for a new Cold War that would only complicate their efforts at economic and social development.

Whether they have much choice in that is of course another matter. As Thomas Fingar and David M. Lampton argued recently in The Washington Quarterly, China and the U.S. will eventually “have to adjust their policies toward mutual accommodation, but ‘eventually’ could be a long time coming and impose enormous costs in the interim.”