ASEAN is vital for China, and they should know better

Southeast Asian countries are torn between China and the United States. Taking that trend into consideration, actions taken by China will be the decisive factor in determining the direction of Southeast Asian countries.

If China continues being assertive, especially in security-militaristic sense, Southeast Asian countries will undoubtedly seek for security assurances from China’s greatest adversary, the United States.

With the fact that the United States places warheads in many spots in Asia-Pacific (or in the Pacific Ocean), Southeast Asian countries are still, in factual term, protected by America’s effort to counter-balance or contain China.

However, here is where America’s Indo-Pacific strategy is lacking : it is not as well defined as China’s Belt and Road Initiative and it is not as well executed. And this is a leverage for China.

Execution of the well-defined strategy — or what the Chinese call as “initiative” due to their reluctance to use the term “strategy.

And this is where China comes in. China’s Belt and Road Initiative greatly complements ASEAN’s Master Plan for Connectivity; the official document is MPAC, or the Master Plan for ASEAN Connectivity.

The trend to have a closer relationship with China can be seen in many Southeast Asian countries. While Southeast Asian countries in the peninsula (such as Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia) have forged cooperation on the basis of physical infrastructure projects, country like Singapore has just recently concluded an upgraded version of Free Trade Agreement with China. Interestingly, the FTA mentioned that both parties endorse China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

This is where things get more delicate. China-Philippines relation is not without turbulence. Philippine’s choosing to hedge China presents another Challenge for China. Vietnam’s strong opposition for China’s claim in the South China Sea is another. Not to mention Malaysia’s government under Mahathir’s cancellation on the rail projects in Malaysia — although there are possibilities to resume the projects.

China’s relationship with Singapore, despite the recently concluded FTA is also not less complicated. China wants to assist Thailand in building the Kra Canal, which cuts the peninsula for about 100 km. This brings concern for Singapore, which is the regional hub for transportation, mainly sea transport. Singapore argues that the construction of Kra Canal could undermine ASEAN and trust among member states.

In terms of ASEAN-China cooperation, both parties, at current point, already has a Free Trade Agreement. And in the document outlining ASEAN-China Cooperation 2030, it is written that both parties endorse China’s BRI.

Challenges and Recommendations to Consider

However, it is important to note that the broader ASEAN-China relations will face several major challenges in the future.

  1. Southeast Asian countries are increasingly concerned about the so-called “Debt Trap”. Seeing the examples in other parts of the world, but notably Sri Lanka, Southeast Asian countries clearly do not want to face the same problem. While the Chinese have long been arguing that instead because of Chinese investment, Sri Lanka for example was “trapped” because of the mismanagement in its own government, besides other domestic flaws. To build a stronger case, the Chinese should prove that it is not because of the Chinese. One way to do this is to publish an open economic calculation on the impact of Chinese investment and/or to prove that it is indeed because of government mismanagement and domestic flaws instead of due to the Chinese. In other words, China has to embrace transparency in BRI projects.
  2. Singapore’s opposition to Kra Canal, as mentioned before, is another challenge. This is primarily because in ASEAN, member states are trying to build trust and confidence among themselves, and the construction of Kra Canal can undermine this. That being said, China has to prioritize ASEAN centrality when it comes to giving support to infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia.
  3. Vietnam’s hard stance to China is another thing, especially in regards to South China Sea. That being said, China has to give room and space for ASEAN member states to talk among themselves, to take a clear and unified stance. By doing this, China can be seen with more confidence by ASEAN member states. China will not be seen as an aggressive power trying to dominate the region as a regional hegemon. China should and wants to be seen as the partner of the region, and to achieve that, China should indeed act as a partner to the region, not as a power that undermines regional integration, ASEAN centrality, and mutual-trust as well as confidence among countries in the region.

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