Sunday, January 29, 2023

Preventing Containment: China’s Countermeasure against the Indo-Pacific Strategy in Southeast Asia

Arrizal Jaknanihan

The unveiling of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy by President Donald Trump has defined the new period of great power competition in the region. After years of accommodation, the 2017 United States’ National Security Strategy for the first time named China explicitly as its “strategic rival.”[1] Washington’s decision to adopt the Indo-Pacific concept not only intensifies animosity towards Beijing, it also expands the arena of competition by involving countries surrounding the Pacific and Indian. Against this backdrop, the Indo-Pacific strategy is viewed as a containment effort aimed to balance China’s influences. While its merit still becomes the point of contention, China’s responses to the Indo-Pacific strategy were largely overlooked, especially in Southeast Asia where the “ground zero” of US-China competition took place. Bounded by geographic proximity and shared concern, China has adopted various countermeasures against the Indo-Pacific strategy in Southeast Asia.

Beijing has consistently rejected the use of the “Indo-Pacific” term, perceiving it as a strategy to contain its rise. China’s fear is further aggravated with the establishment of various initiatives tacitly aimed to balance Beijing’s influence, namely the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and lately the AUKUS pact between the US, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Responding to Washington’s signaling, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has criticized the Indo-Pacific strategy as a “come-back of Cold War mentality.”[2] Despite its traction, the Indo-Pacific strategy only received a lukewarm response from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Lack of support is attributed to Trump’s approach that forces ASEAN to pick sides between the US and China. To prevent regional isolation, it’s China’s best interest to keep ASEAN at least neutral, if not opposing, the Indo-Pacific strategy.

Securing ASEAN’s Supports

Speaking during the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2019, Singapore PM Lee Hsien Long rightfully conveyed ASEAN’s concerns, stating that Indo-Pacific strategy should not “create rival blocs, deepen fault lines, or force countries to take sides.”[3] Lack of clarity on the Indo-Pacific strategy makes ASEAN fear that it might weaken its centrality in the region. ASEAN has long committed to remain neutral amidst the competition. And without ASEAN’s support, the Indo-Pacific strategy will not have the necessary resources to secure its objective. Recognizing its importance to determine the US’s success, it becomes China’s utmost priority to prevent ASEAN countries from joining the US-led Indo-Pacific network.

Located at the very center of the Indo-Pacific, ASEAN’s role has become pivotal to sustain China’s leverage in the region. Unlike other countries in its periphery, China does not have a major-level adversary from Southeast Asian countries. Despite ebbs and flows, overall China-ASEAN relations is able to reach an unprecedented level in decades. President Xi Jinping even explicitly named Southeast Asia as the top priority of China’s “neighborhood diplomacy”. In the context of great power competition, ASEAN’s culture of neutrality and hegemonic denial serve China’s long-term interests to prevent a full-scale containment from the US’s alliances.[4] ASEAN’s indifference against Trump’s anti-China rhetoric further adds another factor into the equation. Securing a robust China-ASEAN relationship becomes more important than ever for Beijing in this context.

Although maintaining ASEAN’s support has become indispensable, the relationship between two parties has been strained during the past few years. China’s aggressive posture in the South China Sea has drawn backlashes from regional countries. Since 2013, China has carried out militarization projects and massive island-building in the South China Sea. In response, claimant states like Vietnam began to ramp up its security ties with external partners, such as the US and Quad countries. With anxiety over the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in addition, many Chinese scholars warned of the risk of “strategic overstretch” in China’s regional diplomacy. Beijing’s policy makers are warned that their assertiveness could risk China’s relations with neighboring countries.

Beijing’s expansionism could potentially drive regional countries to turn their back on China and resort to the US’s assurance, further isolating China’s position. Shi Yinhong from Renmin University warned that China has taken too many initiatives and should put more balance between its rivalry with the US and diplomacy with Southeast Asian countries.[5] The Indo-Pacific strategy has provided a momentum for China to shift its regional policies. China has begun moderating its approach to alleviate Southeast Asia’ fears. China’s reassurance has been delivered by reducing tension in the South China Sea, providing economic inducement, and most importantly, showing its commitment to ASEAN-centered regionalism.

Moderation in the South China Sea

The South China Sea dispute has stood as the center of contention between China and Southeast Asian countries, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines with most of their sea territories are overlapping with China’s claim. Since Xi Jinping took the office of president, China’s aggressive posture has gained sharp criticism that in turn has stalled China’s effort to deepen its relationship with Southeast Asia. Cognizant with the risk of backlash, China has gradually moderated its assertiveness on the South China Sea. ASEAN members’ support for the UNCLOS—tacitly came as a reference to Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision in 2016 that rejected China’s “Nine-Dash Line” claim—has also pushed China to reconsider its approach.[6]

To deliver its reassurance, China has gradually reduced the scale of its island and reef construction since 2017. China also began to be more amenable in negotiating the Code of Conduct (COC), a framework that establishes rules to manage tension in the South China Sea dispute, after years of stagnation since its first declaration in 2002.[7] China’s moderation has allowed it to progress the negotiation in August 2017 and formally initiated consultations in November of the same year. Two parties were finally able to reach a milestone in July 2019 when the first reading of the COC single draft was accomplished.

Adding to its moderation, Beijing also cooperates in the security sector. For the first time, two partners were able to conduct a China-ASEAN Maritime Exercise in 2018. The joint-exercise that took place in Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province, demonstrated Beijing’s willingness to maintain strategic trust in the traditional security issue, an area which has long divide China and ASEAN cooperation. The exercise also bridged the discrepancy of “dualistic order” that characterized ASEAN relations with great power: economic benefit from China and security assurance from the US. To consolidate its position, China also further improves its economic engagement, the area which the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy is heavily lacking in Southeast Asia.

Reducing Strategic Overstretch

In order to atone its “strategic overstretch”, China has refined several elements of BRI. The BRI has been long perceived as the embodiment of China’s expansionism and equivalence of Beijing’s own Indo-Pacific strategy.[8] There has been a major shift on the way China promotes the BRI since 2017. The latest approach is more focused on high-quality and high-standard infrastructure, against the accusation of debt-trap during BRI’s initial years, especially after the Hambantota case in Sri Lanka. To better ameliorate its risk management, the Chinese Ministry of Finance also signed the BRI Financing Guideline, providing more autonomy to the recipient. Beijing’s intention is also shown by its willingness to renegotiate several infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia, such as the Kyaukphyu Deep-Seaport in Myanmar[9] and East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) in Malaysia.[10]

In mainland Southeast Asia, China also doubled down its economic inducement through Lancang Mekong Cooperation, a minilateral forum that connects China with six Mekong countries. In 2018, China committed the concessional loan amounted to $1 billion. China also increases its economic inducement with leaders who are leaning towards China, such as the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, Thailand PM Prayut-chan-o-Cha, and the then-Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammad.[11] Despite the latter’s anti-China rhetoric during its early tenure, Mahathir continues to speak highly of the BRI project, particularly the ECRL that connects peninsular Malaysia’s west coast near Kuala Lumpur to its northeastern state.[12]

By deepening its bilateral ties, China is not only able to regain its strategic trust, but also prevents ASEAN from becoming a collective bloc that stands against China. ASEAN’s commitment for neutrality has been able to protect China from external isolation. Conversely, a divided ASEAN also will not necessarily serve China’s interest. However, even if ASEAN is not able to remain united, China still can be protected by the regional mechanism that ASEAN rests upon. Tsjeng Zhizhao Henrick’s commentary in S. Rajaratnam School for International Studies aptly captures this situation. China is still able to secure its position even in the divided ASEAN by “ensuring that ASEAN would never be able to form a cohesive bloc that acts against Beijing’s interests in the region”[13]

Converging Interest, For Now

China’s countermeasures, adding to ASEAN’s institutional limitation, have enabled Beijing to better secure its position against the Indo-Pacific strategy. In contrast to the common narrative, ASEAN’s view towards the Indo-Pacific is remarkably more inclusive on China’s aspiration. ASEAN’s attempt to assert its position as a regional fulcrum necessitates the regional group to also accommodate Beijing’s concern: avoiding containment and overly-securitized narrative. ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific Outlook is more economy oriented, while eschewing security focus that could give the impression that ASEAN is supporting the Free and Open Indo-Pacific. As such, countries with strong alignment to Beijing, such as Cambodia and Laos, remain hesitant to push a collective Indo-Pacific strategy.[14]

Although China is only able to alter ASEAN’s response to a limited degree, ASEAN’s “agnosticism” towards the Free and Open Indo-Pacific,[15] as a retired Singaporean Diplomat Bilahari Kausikan wrote in The Diplomat, aligns with Beijing’s objective. China was unable to fully dissuade ASEAN from incorporating several elements of the Indo-Pacific strategy, such as the “rules-based” framework that might come as a reference to China’s territorial violation.  However, as far as its substance is concerned, AOIP poses no threat against China’s position—for the time being.

ASEAN has been criticized by its lack of specificity in its Indo-Pacific Outlook. It is not impossible that the convergence only came because ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific Outlook is currently still at stagnation in the visional and aspirational level. As bluntly noted by Evan Laksmana, Senior Fellow from Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy NUS, AOIP currently is “more aspirational than a policy proposal, and hope is not a strategy.”[16] After all, the term “outlook” in ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific indicates that ASEAN never intended to formulate a “strategy”, in similar fashion to that of the US.[17] While AOIP is yet to be fully implemented, China needs to find the area where their interests align and remain a committed dialogue partner, thus avoiding the potential misalignment once ASEAN’s outlook comes into effect.


Reference

[1] The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, White House, Washington, D.C., 2017, p. 25.

[2] “’Indo-Pacific strategy’ is come-back of Cold War mentality, retrogression of history: FM”, Xinhua, 7 March 2021, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2021-07/03/c_1310041520.htm

[3] “PM Lee Hsien Loong at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2019,” Prime Minister Office of Singapore, 31 May 2019, https://www.pmo.gov.sg/Newsroom/PM-Lee-Hsien-Loong-at-the-IISS-Shangri-La-Dialogue-2019.

[4] Xue Gong, “Non-traditional security cooperation between China and south-east Asia: implications for Indo-Pacific geopolitics”, International Relations, vol. 96, no. 1, 2020, p. 32.

[5] Yinhong Shi, “Chuantong zhonguo jingyan yu dangdai zhongguo shijian: zhanlue tiaozheng, zhanlve touzhi yu weida fuxing wenti” [Traditional Chinese experience and contemporary Chinese practice: strategic adjustment, strategic overdraft, and national rejuvenation], Waijiao pinglun [Foreign Affairs Review], no. 6, 2015, pp. 57–68.

[6] Klaus Heinrich Radityo, interview by author, 26 October 2021.

[7] Feng Liu, “The recalibration of Chinese assertiveness: China’s responses to the Indo-Pacific challenge”, International Affairs, vol. 96, no. 1, 2020, p. 25.

[8] Liu, “The recalibration of Chinese assertiveness”, p. 22,

[9] John Reed, “China and Myanmar sign off on Belt and Road projects”, Financial Review, 19 January 2020, https://www.afr.com/world/asia/china-and-myanmar-sign-off-on-belt-and-road-projects-20200119-p53sqv.

[10]“Malaysia seeks to reroute $10.6 billion belt-and-road rail project”, Reuters, 16 September 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/malaysia-ecrl/malaysia-seeks-to-reroute-10-6-billion-belt-and-road-rail-project-idUSKBN25Z0PI.

[11] See Seng Tan, “Consigned to hedge: south-east Asia and America‘s ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ strategy”, International Affairs, vol. 96, no. 1, 2020, p. 137

[12] “The Belt and Road Initiative is great’: Malaysia PM Mahathir”, Channel News Asia, 26 April 2019, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/mahathir-endorse-belt-and-road-china-889066.

[13] Tsjeng Zhizhao Henrick, “China’s Vision for Southeast Asia: The Struggle to Create a ‘Friendly Backyard'”, S. Rajaratnam School for International Studies, 5 November 2021, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/idss/ip21013-chinas-vision-for-southeast-asia-the-struggle-to-create-a-friendly-backyard/.

[14] Hoang Thi Ha, “ASEAN Navigates between Indo-Pacific Polemics and Potentials”, ISEAS Perspective, 20 April 2021, https://www.iseas.edu.sg/articles-commentaries/iseas-perspective/2021-49-asean-navigates-between-indo-pacific-polemics-and-potentials-by-hoang-thi-ha/.

[15] Bilahari Kausikan, “ASEAN: Agnostic on the Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, The Diplomat, 27 April 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/05/asean-agnostic-on-the-free-and-open-indo-pacific/.

[16] Evan A. Laksmana, “Flawed Assumptions: Why the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific is Defective”, Asia Global Institute, 19 September 2019, https://www.asiaglobalonline.hku.hk/flawed-assumptions-why-the-asean-outlook-on-the-indo-pacific-is-defective.

[17] Dewi Fortuna Anwar, interview by author, 2 November 2021.

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