ASEAN still the catalyst for China's fu­ture

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - KISHORE MAHBUBANI news­room@mm­times.com

CHINA is mak­ing some se­ri­ous strate­gic mis­takes in its deal­ings with ASEAN. It is sac­ri­fic­ing its long-term in­ter­ests in favour of short­term ob­jec­tives and its global in­ter­ests in favour of re­gional con­cerns. And in the process, it is un­der­min­ing a crit­i­cal catalyst to its peace­ful rise.

China’s peace­ful emer­gence as the num­ber-two power in the world is a modern geopo­lit­i­cal mir­a­cle. In 1980 its share of global GDP in pur­chas­ing power par­ity terms, was 2 per­cent – far less than the 22pc the US ac­counted for. By 2014, China’s share had over­taken the United States. Nor­mally such great-power tran­si­tions are ac­com­pa­nied by com­pe­ti­tion and con­flict. In­stead, China emerged peace­fully. Why?

Many fac­tors were re­spon­si­ble. Deng Xiaop­ing’s wise geopo­lit­i­cal ad­vice to “hide and bide” China’s strength was a key fac­tor. He also called on the Chi­nese “to swal­low bit­ter hu­mil­i­a­tion”. This they did. But it is im­pos­si­ble to swal­low bit­ter hu­mil­i­a­tion for­ever. It was in­evitable that China would even­tu­ally lose its pa­tience and lash out against per­ceived mar­itime provo­ca­tions by Ja­pan and ASEAN. We can only hope that th­ese re­cent out­bursts have had a cathar­tic and calm­ing ef­fect on the na­tional psy­che.

Yet China’s ac­tions with ASEAN show that the anger has not abated. It is com­monly be­lieved that Chi­nese pres­sure led Cam­bo­dia to veto the ASEAN joint com­mu­nique on the South China Sea in 2012. Sim­i­larly, China likely per­suaded Cam­bo­dia, Laos and Thai­land to walk away from the agreed ASEAN state­ment, later in­dis­creetly leaked by Malaysia.

China is one of the more ra­tio­nal geopo­lit­i­cal actors to­day. Un­like the United States and Rus­sia, China’s geopo­lit­i­cal ac­tions are not com­monly driven by emo­tional parox­ysms. Yet China’s atyp­i­cal emo­tional de­fence of the in­fa­mous “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea goes against its larger global in­ter­ests.

China is now the world’s num­berone trad­ing power and has been since 2014. It is also the world’s big­gest ex­porter of man­u­fac­tured goods. Chi­nese tooth­brushes and de­ter­gents ar­rive safely on African and Latin Amer­i­can shores be­cause the world’s oceans are open to free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion and safe for com­mer­cial ship­ping. The US Navy is in­ad­ver­tently do­ing the Chi­nese econ­omy a big favour by keep­ing in­ter­na­tional sea lanes open. This has fa­cil­i­tated the near qua­dru­pling of China’s global trade from US$600 bil­lion in 2004 to $2.2 tril­lion in 2015.

Yet in the same decade, when its re­liance on free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion in the world’s oceans in­creased, China pri­ori­tised re­gional in­ter­ests ahead of its global in­ter­ests. The nine-dash line, which had re­mained dor­mant for decades, sud­denly sur­faced in the Chi­nese pub­lic con­scious­ness and the Chi­nese me­dia be­gan to de­fend it passionately.

It is against Chi­nese in­ter­ests to con­vert any in­ter­na­tional wa­ter­way into an in­ter­nal lake. This is why Wei Zongyou of Fu­dan Uni­ver­sity has wisely ad­vised that “[t]o avoid a pos­si­ble mar­itime trap that will not only be detri­men­tal to China’s true na­tional in­ter­ests, but also neg­a­tively af­fect many other coun­tries, China, as a ma­jor claimant, should think longer term and take steps to de-es­ca­late the ten­sion”.

The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has not de­cided to break up ASEAN. In­deed, it wants to strengthen ASEAN. Yet its ac­tions have weak­ened ASEAN, a danger­ous thing to do to an or­gan­i­sa­tion that is in­her­ently frag­ile – per­haps as frag­ile as a Ming vase.

More dan­ger­ously, China be­gan to un­der­mine ASEAN’s unity. In the­ory, China can af­ford to alien­ate the 10 rel­a­tively weak ASEAN mem­ber states. In prac­tice, China is shoot­ing it­self in the foot, since ASEAN’s ex­cep­tional suc­cess as a re­gional or­gan­i­sa­tion has also fa­cil­i­tated China’s peace­ful rise.

In the 1980s the strate­gic align­ment of in­ter­ests be­tween ASEAN, China and the United States to re­verse Viet­nam’s oc­cu­pa­tion of Cam­bo­dia en­abled China to open up to the world. In the 1990s, after the West iso­lated China fol­low­ing the Tianan­men Square protests in 1989, ASEAN kept en­gag­ing with China. In the 2000s, ASEAN re­acted en­thu­si­as­ti­cally to China’s pro­posal for en­hanced eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion, which also co­in­cided with China’s en­try into the WTO.

China has also been ex­cep­tion­ally gen­er­ous to­wards ASEAN. It stunned the world by be­ing the first ma­jor eco­nomic power to pro­pose a free trade agree­ment with ASEAN, mo­ti­vat­ing other pow­ers to fol­low suit. China has been equally gen­er­ous in its aid pro­grams and was the first eco­nomic power to com­mit to en­hanc­ing ASEAN’s in­fra­struc­ture. As a re­sult, there were, un­til re­cently, mas­sive reser­voirs of good­will to­ward China in ASEAN. It’s a tragedy that th­ese reser­voirs are now dry­ing up.

ASEAN had re­sponded pos­i­tively to China’s gen­eros­ity. It fa­cil­i­tated China’s rise in other salient ways. By con­vert­ing the Balkans of Asia into one of the most peace­ful re­gions in the world, ASEAN helped to change the chem­istry of the larger East Asia re­gion. China should look care­fully at how Rus­sia has been trou­bled by chal­lenges in Ukraine and Syria. If South­east Asia had emerged, like the Mid­dle East, as a more trou­bled re­gion, China would inevitably have been dis­tracted.

In­stead, ASEAN cre­ated a geopo­lit­i­cal oa­sis which helped main­tain peace in East and South Asia. The an­nual ASEAN meet­ings pro­vided the only safe and sta­ble geopo­lit­i­cal plat­form for re­gional and great pow­ers to talk to each other reg­u­larly. When­ever re­la­tions be­tween China and Ja­pan broke down, their lead­ers turned to the ASEAN meet­ings to re­store mat­ters.

ASEAN has there­fore been a crit­i­cal catalyst for the decades of peace that we have seen in the re­gion. This is why the time has come for China to rad­i­cally re­cal­cu­late its in­ter­ests in re­gards to ASEAN. Is the de­fence of the nine-dash line the “core in­ter­est” of China in South­east Asia? Or is it the con­tin­ued suc­cess of ASEAN as a re­gional or­gan­i­sa­tion pro­mot­ing the cul­ture of peace and pros­per­ity in the broader re­gion?

The an­swer al­most seems ob­vi­ous. This is what makes China’s re­cent ac­tions to­ward ASEAN truly puz­zling. China is jeop­ar­dis­ing its own in­ter­ests in un­der­min­ing ASEAN unity.

More im­por­tantly, as China’s lead­ers fre­quently em­pha­sise, China has not ar­rived as a modern de­vel­oped power. Its per capita in­come is still only 25pc of the United States’. China still needs a few more peace­ful decades to com­plete the job.

Ul­ti­mately, Deng Xiaop­ing was right when he called on the Chi­nese peo­ple to be pa­tient. He was right in say­ing that the prob­lem of ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes should be passed to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. The prob­lem of the South China Sea should be put on the back­burner. China’s larger in­ter­ests in peace­ful re­gional chem­istry should push it to­ward pre­serv­ing and strength­en­ing the crit­i­cal catalyst that has fa­cil­i­tated China’s rise so far. – East Asia Fo­rum

Kishore Mahbubani is dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Pub­lic Pol­icy, Na­tional Uni­ver­sity of Sin­ga­pore.

Photo: EPA

Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe (left) shakes hands with Laos’ Prime Min­is­ter Thon­gloun Sisoulith (cen­tre) as China’s Premier Li Ke­qiang looks on dur­ing an ASEAN sum­mit in Laos in Septem­ber.

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