China’s growing influence is not welcome by Asean member countries such as Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia.
Within the increased power competition between China and the US, when Cambodia is seen as China’s vessel state, Singapore is seen as the protector of the American international order. The Philippines is seen as the hypocrite that cannot cry foul in its own house.
Vietnam is seen as the “complicater” or like pills that give everyone sleepless nights at every multilateral forum. Indonesia is seen as the big brother without followers. Malaysia is becoming invisible. Laos, Myanmar and Brunei are voiceless. Lastly, Thailand is seen as the number one escaper that no one can ever catch.
In the good old days, Indonesia used to have big clout when it was holding a neutral position that could accommodate and give space for maneuvering for both big and small states in Asean. It no longer does that once it became one of the actors in influence and competition.
Externally, the US is dividing Asean. According to the National Security Strategy of the US published in December last year, the US will strengthen “quadrilateral cooperation” with Japan, Australia and India and will “re-energise alliances with the Philippines and Thailand and strengthen partnerships with Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and others to help them become cooperative maritime partners”.
The US has shown assertiveness at the beginning of the year and shows no restraint in instigating China. Its rationale is “all operations are conducted in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows”.
For this year, it is likely that the US, India, Japan and Australia will gear up their mutual coordination within “quadrilateral cooperation” to give an impression that China’s containment policy is heating up. This will create tension in the region unless North Korea once again diverts regional security attention.
If such tension between China and “quadrilateral” alliances lasts, coupled with a partially unwelcoming Asean, China’s image will likely suffer.
Amid such an unfavorable environment, maybe China should start rethinking its Asean policy to give less focus on multilateral engagement and promote more bilateral dialogues. It is in the interests of China and all Asean member states if China diverts its focus to promote trust and confidence not through “money”, but through bilateral dialogues and practical cooperation with the understanding that some states see China as a “money-bags” to be exploited and blackmailed by their unfavorable positions.
Should China wish to use Asean platforms to promote its image as a benign superpower and that its growing influence is to everyone’s benefit, China needs to assure all the suspicious states that it will not pursue an “expansionist” policy that it once endured and was humiliated as a victim of Japan’s aggression and expansionism.
For the current environment between China and Asean, trust is elusive and a mere illusion and China needs to accept this inconvenient truth.
Soun Nimeth is a Cambodian analyst in Phnom Penh.
The opinions expressed are the author’s and not those of Khmer Times.