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Nervous Neighbors: China Finds a Sphere of Influence

Richard Weitz

In many respects, it is the structure, principles, and process of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—the now ten-member economic organization formed by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand in 1967—that make it vulnerable to Chinese influence as Beijing flexes its regional muscle. With its amorphous objectives of economic growth, social progress, and regional stability, ASEAN has proven so weak that it poses an opportunity rather than a threat to China. The organization lacks a collective security provision, joint military forces, and even a foreign policy solidarity clause—the kind of commitments that prevented the Soviet Union from achieving hegemony over Europe during the Cold War. The “ASEAN Way” stresses state sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other members, mitigating discomfort with the PRC’s authoritarian political system. In this regard, in fact, there is more potential tension with the Western democracies, which focus on human rights, fair elections, and other liberal democratic principles.

Beijing has cleverly used economic enticements to deepen its ties with its Southeast Asian neighbors, making China ASEAN’s largest trading partner. Under the terms of ASEAN’s Free Trade Agreement with China, the six original member states, along with China, would eliminate tariffs on ninety percent of their products by 2010, with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam having until 2015 to do the same. Beijing has continually promoted economic, military, and political cooperation relationships that are “Asia only”—such as the ASEAN Plus Three (ASEAN, China, Japan, and South Korea). But, unable in recent years to keep the implications of considerable military weight (a double-digit annual growth in defense spending for the last fifteen years) from showing in the region, China has also undermined its “win-win” idea of diplomacy. While upholding mutually beneficial economic ties with their giant neighbor, ASEAN leaders have also, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, encouraged the United States to maintain an active presence in their region as an external balancer to the PRC.

One major source of tension between Beijing and some of its Pacific neighbors is their overlapping claims to the South China Sea. This 3.5 million-square-kilometer body of water contains islands, minerals, oil and natural gas reserves, and maritime passages contested by the various littoral states. China and Vietnam assert claims to all the small islands in the South China Sea, whereas Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan claim only some of them. The Spratly and Paracel chains are the most prominent of the islands, whose small size and population belie the potential value of the important natural resources, especially oil and natural gas, thought to lie under their surrounding waters. The islands are also surrounded by valuable fishing grounds and straddle shipping lanes through which vital energy resources flow into East Asia from beyond.

During the 1990s, the PRC declared the entire South China Sea to be its territorial waters and indicated a willingness, when it gained the capacity, to enforce these claims. In the early 2000s, however, Beijing changed course and pursued a “smile diplomacy” to reassure ASEAN nations worried by its rising military power. In November 2002, China and the ASEAN countries signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, pledging to resolve sovereignty disputes peacefully through direct negotiations.

For reasons that remain unclear, the PRC modified its low-key approach in March 2010, when Chinese officials declared the South China Sea a “core national interest.” In diplomatic language, this term normally means an issue a state is willing to use military force to defend. Until this point, Chinese leaders had applied that term only to Tibet and Taiwan. In July, Ministry of Defense spokesman Senior Colonel Geng Yansheng became more specific when he insisted that “China has indisputable sovereignty of the South Sea, and China has sufficient historical and legal backing.”

The Chinese Navy has been developing the strength to enforce this claim. It has built an enormous base on Hainan Island as a home port that places the fleet closer to the disputed waters of the South China Sea. The Chinese military has also been developing a new missile, the Dong Feng 21D, intended to hit an aircraft carrier or other moving target at a distance of 1,500 kilometers, and will soon deploy its own first aircraft carrier, recently purchased from Russia. The Chinese military apparently believes that having such a capacity will lead the US Navy to steer clear of the South China Sea and other disputed regions around China’s maritime periphery. In July 2010, partly to affirm the PRC’s maritime claims, the People’s Liberation Army Navy conducted a massive show of force in the South China Sea, with at least a dozen warships from all three of its navy fleets.

Of all the ASEAN countries, Vietnam has the touchiest relationship with China, sharing a border that has led to centuries of invasions and armed conflicts between the two nations. Still, most recent Sino-Vietnamese tensions have involved water, specifically the South China Sea. The Vietnamese Navy, under different regimes, fought battles with the Chinese during the mid-1970s and late 1980s over the Paracel and Spratly island chains. The PRC seized the Paracels in 1974 while Vietnam was preoccupied with the final stages of its war, and has since established and reinforced military garrisons there along with a military airbase. Since these facilities are located southeast of Hainan, they allow the People’s Liberation Army to project power from points beyond the China coast. More recently, Chinese authorities have declared unilateral fishing bans in the South China Sea and have seized Vietnamese fishing boats in the area, keeping any catches and equipment and releasing the crews only after they pay fines. They have also been warning Western energy firms not to negotiate offshore drilling agreements with the Vietnamese government if they don’t want their business interests in China to suffer.

In response, Vietnamese leaders have cultivated a strong and militant form of national independence that aims to make their country a “poison shrimp” that China cannot digest. They have also returned to an age-old tradition of relying on larger, external powers to help balance China’s superior population and other resources. During the Cold War, Vietnam cultivated ties with Moscow as well as Beijing, eventually siding with the Soviet Union following the end of the war with the US. Since most of Vietnam’s existing arsenal is of Soviet design, its military has found it most practical for reasons of logistical simplicity and cost effectiveness to continue purchasing Soviet-origin weapons from Russia, such as the Su-30 Flanker fighters and Kilo diesel submarines. But despite this tie, Hanoi has been seeking to develop security ties with the United States as well.

The leaders of Vietnam, however, are not the only ones in Southeast Asia concerned about China’s increasing diplomatic and military boldness. In a letter to the United Nations on July 8, the Indonesian government formally challenged the PRC’s claims to the South China Sea for the first time after a Chinese warship forced an Indonesian patrol boat to release Chinese fishermen. The Chinese boat had been captured in an area that Indonesia claims lies in its Exclusive Economic Zone, but the PRC denied the claim. Philippine and Malaysian officials have also communicated to Washington, if less openly, their concerns about the PRC’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

The concerns of China’s neighbors are also evident in the sustained military buildups some of them have begun. According to arms transfer data released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the value of the major conventional weapons systems delivered to Southeast Asian countries almost doubled between 2005 and 2009. Malaysia, which contests Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea, imported an astounding 722 percent more arms during this period than it did during the previous five years. For Singapore, the increase was 146 percent, while for Indonesia it was 84 percent. The large volume of weapons purchased by Singapore has, in fact, resulted in that country becoming the first state in Southeast Asia to rank among the world’s top ten arms importers since the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

The ASEAN countries cannot hope to balance China militarily, of course. Even with the buildup, the PRC significantly outmatches the combined weight of ASEAN members in manpower, equipment, and spending. A Center for Strategic and International Studies report on the military balance in Asia estimated Chinese military personnel in 2010 at 2,170,000. In contrast, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines combined only have 1,472,000 in uniform. Moreover, the ASEAN militaries have shown little interest in pooling their defense resources and developing a collective military force.

The ASEAN states also have extensive and mutually beneficial economic ties with Beijing that they do not want to jeopardize by directly confronting China over its maritime claims. They would prefer that some other external balancer such as the United States assume that role, with ASEAN providing indirect support. Unlike South Korea, Japan, or Australia, the Southeast Asian states lack bilateral defense treaties with the United States. Nonetheless, some ASEAN officials have been privately pressing Washington to intervene on the South China Sea issue to discourage Chinese adventurism. Unsurprisingly, it has been the Vietnamese who have most eagerly sought to work with their former adversary to balance the regional colossus.

It was therefore probably not an accident that, at the July 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton broke with precedent and offered to help launch multilateral talks on disputed South China Sea territories within the ASEAN framework. She also reaffirmed standard US opposition to the use of coercion or threats of force to settle conflicting claims. Clinton justified her statement of concern on this occasion by explaining that “The United States, like every nation, has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.”

At the May 2010 Shangri-La Dialogue, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the South China Sea “not only vital to those directly bordering it, but to all nations with economic and security interests in Asia.” Alluding to alleged PRC threats against American and other international oil companies considering cooperation with Vietnam, Gates said, “We object to any effort to intimidate US corporations or those of any nation engaged in legitimate economic activity.” When he visited the Philippines in August 2010, the commander of US forces in the Pacific, Admiral Robert Willard, affirmed the American commitment to guarantee free navigation in the South China Sea.

Taken together, these statements by US officials constituted a bold move designed to redirect the PRC from its increasingly aggressive stance by underscoring American unwillingness to allow the region to become an uncontested sphere of influence. The United States has traditionally sought to avoid taking a public position on East Asian sovereignty disputes, but the recent aggressive moves by China, combined with the quiet pleadings of some prominent ASEAN leaders, has galvanized the Obama administration into action.

Not surprisingly, the PRC foreign and defense ministries each criticized Secretary Clinton for intervening in the South China Sea dispute. In late August 2010, a small manned submarine had planted a PRC flag on the sea bed of the South China Sea. On September 21, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson warned against “any kind of statement that might be issued by the US and ASEAN over the South China Sea” during the September 24 summit, when President Obama would meet with ASEAN leaders on the sidelines of the annual opening of the UN General Assembly in New York. The unofficial PRC media described the new US assertiveness over the South China Sea, as well as the US decision to join the East Asia Summit, as an effort, in collusion with the Vietnamese, to contain China.

The Chinese see Washington’s more assertive declaratory policy regarding the South China Sea through the lens of the increasingly close economic and strategic ties between the US and Hanoi, despite persistent tensions between the two over human rights. Along with China and Japan, the United States is one of Vietnam’s largest trading partners, export markets, and sources of foreign direct investment. During the past decade, top US and Vietnamese officials have regularly visited each other’s capitals, senior US and Vietnamese officers have exchanged numerous visits, and American Navy warships have made port calls at Ho Chi Minh City, Hai Phong, and Da Nang. In 2009, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced its willingness to permit the export of “non-lethal” military equipment, such as naval surveillance radars, to Vietnam. In early August 2010, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry announced the beginning of US-Vietnamese negotiations on a civil nuclear cooperation agreement, which could result in US assistance to a Vietnamese nuclear energy program. That same month, the United States and Vietnam held their first formal defense talks, and their navies conducted their first joint exercises since the Vietnam War ended thirty-five years ago.

The destroyer USS John McCain joined with ships of the Vietnamese People’s Navy to conduct training drills for search and rescue, damage control, maintenance, emergency repair, and fire control. At the same time, the nuclear-powered USS George Washington aircraft carrier, nominally there to help mark the fifteenth anniversary of the normalization of US-Vietnamese ties, also hosted a combined Vietnamese civilian-military delegation while sailing in the disputed South China Sea off the Vietnamese port of Da Nang. The United States has also invited Vietnam to send observers to US-led military exercises in the region, including the large Cobra Gold exercise in Thailand. The United States has offered to train Vietnamese soldiers to participate in UN peacekeeping operations. In October 2010, Vietnam invited foreign navies, constructed by the United States and then also used by the Soviet Union, to consider using the naval base at Cam Ranh Bay for “peaceful purposes.” The locale’s deepwater harbor and port infrastructure would be important for replenishing American warships operating in the disputed South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

In November 2010, US Army chief of staff General George William Casey visited the Vietnamese Ministry of Defense in Hanoi, where he and Lieutenant General Nguyen Quoc Khanh of the Vietnam People’s Army agreed to continue cooperating on personnel exchanges, military medicine, and minesweeping.

Vietnamese officials have publicly denied that they are seeking an alliance with the United States against the PRC. They correctly point out that Vietnam engages in defense cooperation with many countries, including China itself. And they note that the US has interests of its own in the region. Indeed, according to one calculation, one-third of all the world’s commercial shipping traverses waters that Chinese policymakers now claim as their own. Soon after taking office, the Obama administration made clear its determination to contest Chinese sovereignty claims in international waters when Chinese ships and aircraft launched a concerted campaign of harassment against US maritime surveillance ships in the South China Sea. The most infamous episode occurred in March 2009, when Chinese sailors tried to seize the sonar buoy of the USNS Impeccable, a non-commissioned auxiliary ship that the US Navy was using to surveil China’s new naval base on Hainan and Chinese submarines in the area.

In addition to these military measures, the Obama administration has been increasing the US diplomatic and economic military presence in Southeast Asia, ending earlier complaints that Washington was neglecting the region due to American preoccupation with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States has joined every ASEAN-related institution it is eligible to join. A flood of US Cabinet members now visit Southeast Asia on a regular basis. In 2008, the US designated Scot Marciel—deputy assistant secretary for Southeast Asia in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs—as, concurrently, ambassador for ASEAN affairs and permanent representative to the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta. The United States signed the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation the following year. The first ASEAN-US summit occurred in November 2009, followed by a second in September 2010. ASEAN invited the United States and Russia, both potential great power balancers against the PRC, to join the East Asia Summit in 2011.

Independently of ASEAN, the United States launched the Lower Mekong Initiative, designed to help Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam address multiple ecological, social, and infrastructure issues. Governments from these countries had complained that Chinese damming of the upper Mekong River was inflicting drought and causing other devastating damage on their environment.

In terms of bilateral relations, the US has sustained long-standing military alliances with the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand and improved security ties with Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as Vietnam. In April 2010, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak met with President Obama in Washington. They discussed Malaysia’s contribution to the US-led military efforts in Afghanistan, which includes about forty medical specialists and military personnel engaged in humanitarian assistance. At the same time, the US government formally upgraded the status of its relationship with Malaysia to that of a “strategic partnership.” In June, Malaysia elevated its status in the annual multilateral Cobra Gold military exercise from that of observer to full participant.

After a lengthy hiatus, the US has also restored comprehensive military ties with Indonesia, including reestablishing relations with Kopassus, Indonesia’s special forces group, which plays a leading role in Indonesia’s counterterrorism efforts. The new Indonesian-US bilateral defense framework agreement provides for security dialogue, education, training, equipment sales, and maritime security cooperation. The two governments also launched a “comprehensive partnership” that includes a joint commission headed by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa and Secretary of State Clinton. American diplomats have also been encouraging Australia, Japan, and especially India to deepen relations with Southeastern Asian countries to further offset the PRC’s hegemonic potential.

Despite their growing economic cooperation with the PRC, ASEAN nations now acknowledge that improved security ties with the United States offer the safest and most effective way—and a far better one than they could achieve alone—for them to hedge against China’s growing power and to exercise influence on Chinese policy. Yet the ASEAN countries also want to keep China and the United States in balance, and do whatever they can to avert a major Sino-American confrontation. While they play both powers against each other to gain advantage and maneuverability, they insist that Sino-American competition remain a civilian contest for regional position, profit, and prestige. Whether the region can maintain that delicate balance in the face of growing American concern over China’s new hegemonic potential and ambition is the question that will determine ASEAN’s future.

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