Political researchers commonly recognise “Pax Britannica” as the defining label for the 19th century and the “American Century” for the 20th; most recently, the term “Chinese Century” has emerged to describe the 21stcentury. China’s impressive economic ascent has invariably brought the most populous nation in the world significant geopolitical influence on the international stage. As the winds of China’s fortunes pick up speed, it would undoubtedly be prudent for her next-door neighbours in the Southeast-Asian region to keep a vigilant look-out and prepare to adjust their sails.

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The rise of China need not necessarily be viewed with wariness nor met with resistance. However, members of the international order would be naïve to believe that the mighty behemoth would avoid rocking the boat in its emergence. In recent years, China has increasingly flexed its geopolitical muscle, spearheading ambitious economic initiatives such as the “One Belt, One Road” strategic plan, later renamed the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), and their reclamation of territories in the South China Sea, firmly staking their claim to the islands and maritime waters in the area.

While these developments are significant in the changes they might bring to the economic and geopolitical realities of all nations involved, a more profound impact could be the means by which China engages the aforementioned nations in the respective issues. Whereas the American hegemon ostensibly adopts a principled modus operandi, i.e. of a values-based international order, and supporting or pressuring other countries depending on their extent of adherence to the order, the Chinese seem to generate and exercise soft power more pragmatically in economic terms through making countries “business” offers to achieve their goals. Reductive as this contrast might be, it is difficult to deny that the Chinese have been fully utilising their deep pockets to buy influence in the wider region to advance their strategic policy.

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Consider the extensive Chinese investments in countries’ infrastructural development. Prominent examples include Djibouti, where China had built a highway connecting it to Ethiopia, completed two new airports and a new port, as well as a salt extraction plant at Lake Assal and a bulk terminal for potash at Tadjourah; and Pakistan, where China had pledged to invest $57 billion on infrastructure development. The returns on these investments are hardly insignificant – China thus gained access to important ports in the Gulf of Aden (at the entrance to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal) and the Indian Ocean respectively, with the first Chinese overseas military base being established in the former, and the Port of Gwadar set to become a key gateway for China’s BRI in the latter.

Closer to home, China has also been pouring significant investments into various ASEAN member states. Malaysia, for one, has signed several deals with China for a series of infrastructure megaprojects. These include $100 billion for the development of an eco-city (“Forest City”) to encourage innovation and gather global elites in Johor Bahru, and another $13.1 billion investment for the building of the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), a high-speed rail service linking Port Klang, near Kuala Lumpur, and Tumpat on the Thai border. Similarly, the China-Thailand Railway, costing up to $5.4 billion, and every single one of the hydropower projects in Cambodia less the 400-MW Lower Sesan 2 project, totalling $7.5 billion, are indicative of firm Chinese intent to assert their presence in Southeast-Asia.

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Such manoeuvring by China could potentially threaten individual states’ national interests, which often takes the position of a balance between the global superpowers of US and China. However, Chinese incentives of late have tilted the see-saw towards the Chinese; after all, to paraphrase Robert D. Kaplan, the Americans may be involved in the Southeast-Asian region for another hundred years due to foreign policy, but the Chinese will be involved for the next thousand years due to geographical proximity. Unsurprisingly, ASEAN has often found its hands tied on the South China Sea issue, where the regional bloc has been unable to deliver a strong response to Chinese reclamation due to the inaction of individual states heavily reliant on Chinese investments for economic development.

Although the Philippines had secured a ruling in its favour by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, little has been done to decisively halt China’s shoring up of the shoals in disputed waters. Once at least one ASEAN member state declines to support the region’s position on the South China Sea issue, little can be done to forge a coherent policy to manage tensions with China – apparent from the failure of the region to issue a joint declaration at the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) of 2015. As such, the perpetuation of China’s economic “carrot-and-stick” might serve to destabilise the present rules-based international order forged under the “Washington Consensus”.

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In order to mitigate the possible difficulties ASEAN might face as a cohesive entity in the face of China’s rise, it might be appropriate to adopt the Chinese style of diplomacy and consider the question: how can ASEAN be of value to China; what’s in it for them? Further consideration necessarily reveals that the way forward is for ASEAN to achieve deeper levels of economic integration, for two main reasons.

Firstly, China would preferentially deal with ASEAN as a region rather than as ten individual nation-states if and only if the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Thus, ASEAN has to ensure that its unity produces a positive sum outcome in economic terms. As Singapore takes over the ASEAN Chairmanship for the year 2018, the direction set by Minister of Foreign Affairs – Dr Vivian Balakrishnan – suggests that ASEAN recognises this and fully intends to pursue this approach.

2018 will (hopefully) see the initiation and progress of various measures to thoroughly integrate the Southeast-Asian region. A prominent example would be the conclusion of talks for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which would form the largest single market in the world comprising ASEAN and six external members including China, Japan and India, representing an integrated market of more than 3 billion people and a combined GDP of US$22.4 trillion.

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Additionally, an ASEAN that has experienced greater economic integration would be attractive to external powers such as Japan, India, Australia and the United States. This is because the implementation of regional initiatives such as the ASEAN Single Window, a digital platform which allows transactions across borders to cut cargo costs and release shipments more quickly due to data collaboration, would ensure the economies of ASEAN remain competitive and dynamic. With sustained interest from these nations, ASEAN can then work towards maintaining a balance of power to the rising China in the region and preserve strategic depth in their foreign policy.

As the tides change in Southeast Asia, therefore, it is imperative that ASEAN demonstrates greater solidarity as a fleet with a clear direction in mind; aimless boats are the first to be carried away by the strong currents, drifting into the indeterminable horizon.

 


Danyon is currently reading Psychology at University College London; nevertheless, he has a keen interest in geopolitics, economics and international relations. An idealist, he believes that institutions enable the building of a brighter future for peoples of the world and places cautious hope in the world organisations of today. He can be contacted at danyonlow@gmail.com.

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.