ASEAN as the laboratory of Chinese hegemonic designs

Image source: AP

Since the inception of ASEAN in 1967 till today, it has achieved feet which many have never even imagined. If the rise of China as a behemoth of economic superpower is a fascination, then trust me, ASEAN’s journey is no less interesting. In half a century since its inception, the combined has a GDP equivalent to the United Kingdome and is only on the upwards trajectory. However, it is not just the sheer unity and perseverance that has led to this. The major contributor to the economic rise is its geographic location as well as the continued peace & stability. This continued peace and stability was achieved by continuously managing economic interests, security considerations and at the same time managing the great powers. It was very much possible as the interests of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China diverged with the Sino-Soviet split. Since then, as China decreased its hostilities with the USA, then its entry into the United Nations confirmed the normalisation of relations with the whole world. It was the time of Deng Xiaoping’s pacifist approach which was appreciated the world over. The one factor which was the matter of mistrust among Beijing and South-East Asian countries, which was, the supply of money and material to the Maoist & Communist groups which were working overtime to dismantle governments in ASEAN countries. With Deng Xiaoping on the helm, he stopped Chinese support to the insurgency in South East Asia. It ushered the Sino-ASEAN relations into a new era.

The disposition at Beijing starting 21st century focused on a two-pronged strategy of managing the relations with the third world through bilateral relations and participating in the larger geopolitics as a Great Power that it had become. The idea of Harmonious Development propounded in Shanghai and popularised by Hu Jintao was to make people less wary of the Chinese rise. This way China was able to maintain its friendly and cooperative demeanour, while at the same time slowly but surely chipping away the USA’s unilateral hegemony.

Cambodia/ Image source: Reuters

China’s Grand Strategy & the importance of ASEAN

China has been able to become the largest stakeholder in ASEAN, its largest trading partner and has with the help of its economic might, has diminished any possible influence by other probable counterweights (like India/Japan), exceptions being the USA and European Union & understandably so.

China’s persistence with South East Asia is a case study and multiple research paper worthy study topic. However, the gist is, China wants to be the middle-power of Asia in the short term (challenging the USA) as is apparent given the opportunism of Xi Jinping during this pandemic. While it sees Washington as the ‘primary contradiction’, it understands taking on the USA will be a long haul. Thus, it wants to secure all the choke points in the Asia-Pacific to safeguard its supply chains for any eventualities. South-East Asia, being the bridge connecting East Asia & Pacific with the Indian Ocean, Africa and other western countries. It is as strategically important as Suez Canal was in the 19th & 20th century, this is the aptest comparison that I could think. The road to the dominance of Indo-Pacific goes through South-East Asia, making it the factor for dominating Asia in the Asian Century. If anybody had any doubts, the South China Sea dispute and Chinese dealing with it would have cleared there any shred of doubts.

The Chinese Strategy of Breaking multinational organisations

Beijing to reclaim its rightful place in the world by becoming the leading civilizational state needs to create a system which can show potential to replace the western liberal institutional world order. For this, the Chinese have devised a two-pronged strategy, firstly creating multilateral organisations with countries based on its understanding of world order and secondly, penetrating the multilateral forums which arose after the wave of democratisation post World War 2 and post-cold war era. The second point that I made is followed by the hollowing of these organisations towards their demise or not. The basic algorithm or Modus Operandi is as follows:

  1. Join the organisation
  2. Foster bilateral relations with the member countries
  3. Utilise the economic differentials and through debt diplomacy make some of the member countries sing the same tune and support Chinese positions in the organisations.
  4. Then make these weaker countries subservient to Beijing’s hegemony, that is kowtowing for prosperity and security.
  5. The end goal of transforming the regional grouping into an outpost of & part of Chinese world order.
Billboard advertisement for the Laos-China railway in Oudomxay province, Laos/ Image source: RFA

ASEAN as the laboratory of Chinese hegemonic designs

Based on this algorithm, ASEAN is in the 4th stage with Laos and Cambodia now kowtowing to PRC. However, the South-East Asian nations, for the most part, were able to balance this encroachment into their sovereignty by relying on the USA’s security architecture in the Asia-Pacific.

The Foreign Direct Investment in ASEAN by Beijing has steadily increased in the past couple of decades, and it was accompanied by Infrastructure Loans, Project Assistance Grants and as part of the Belt & Road Initiative. These loans and economic support form the bedrock of debt diplomacy in the region.

Till the time it was feasible to manage PRC’s intentions and the region’s profits, it was all hunky-dory. As soon as the USA became inward-looking, the policy of balancing the superpowers and gaining the maximum in return was lucrative and profitable but in no sense sustainable.

Image source: The Financial Express

RCEP as a check post for Chinese designs in SEA region

It was, as per many analysts a conceptualisation of Indonesia and ASEAN in toto. This came in the backdrop of an increasingly inward-looking World’s policeman aka the USA, the prognosis is simple if the number of stakeholders in the Trade & Commerce with China is increased then China will have to relook at its operational procedures which will need to be revamped and in case of any further danger to the ASEAN as a regional organisation, all other involved countries can and will intervene. So, it limits the actions of the Chinese dispensation from any further digression of regional sovereignty.

COVID-19 & decreasing acceptance of Chinese Government

Source: IISS

The above chart is really important to understand that, even though the Chinese have been facing severe backlash even in the region where they were confident of their dominance. Thus, although Beijing had devised a well thought-off strategy and worked assiduously towards achieving success in all the 5 phases of tests in ASEAN, the statistical shift from 2019 in the mood of the South East Asians in 2020 based off of their aggressive posturing and opportunism during a pandemic is working out to be counterproductive at a gargantuan scale.

The future of Chinese influence in ASEAN

The Chinese are a civilization in themselves, any argument stating the disappearance of their influence in the Indo-China would most certainly fail with time. However, the way in which Beijing under the nationalistic furore, has hastened its pursuit of making China great again, has made many partners vary and the current actions are solidifying the scare. With China picking fights on all its borders at the same time, the already frustrated big powers like India, Japan, Australia, USA and others have resolutely come to the conclusion that mere words will not be enough and intimidations need to be matched. This escalating situation has buried the brand value of “Harmonious Rise of China” 6 feet deep, making “China Dream” a hegemonic call. South-East Asian countries will focus on keeping their sovereignty and reclaim ASEAN & their foreign policies out of Chinese economic clutches. A more involved Japan-India-Australia trilateral in Indo-Pacific and maintained activity of the USA in the region will keep the Chinese threat in check and would force the Chinese to make changes either their aims or their approach for their goals.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Abhyoday Sisodia

Abhyoday Sisodia is a Research Intern at The Kootneeti

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