From Africa to South Asia and Central Asia, China may be a wolf warrior but for the South East Asian nations the Bamboo capitalist is no more than a milch cow. These eleven countries, despite diversity in religion, culture and history, have shown the red card to the emerging super power. And their red line remains unbreeched.
It is an Asean miracle by all means. It has a message to countries that have lapped up Chinese aid and loans to end up in a debt trap. Put simply, the message is ‘don’t fear the Dragon. It has feet of clay.’
Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam have successfully managed to wither the Chinese tide of incursion through economic means. They have rather complimented their own development with the dragon’s economic growth. With muscle flexing not taking anywhere, President Xi Jinping revisited the drawing board and returned with face-saving friendship deals tailor-made for each interlocutor on the Asean theatre.
Historically speaking, China and Asean, though neighbours, had quite a turbulent past. The Communist Party, after settling down in the Beijing saddle, tried to spread its nest. The CCP not only supported but also fuelled guerrilla movements throughout the region. The export mission failed with a block of five non-communist states, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand thwarting the Big Brother’s designs.
By late sixties the bloc metamorphosed into Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Rest is history as the saying goes.
On its part, China became cautious of the bloc even while dreading it as an instrument ‘encircling’ the Chinese state, and persisting with the old habit of provoking sleeping giants.
However, mutuality of interests resulted in a free trade pact in 2002. The deal opened the Asean market for Chinese goods.
China, with its inability to look beyond its nose, has sparked territorial disputes in the South China Sea (SCS). Flexing its muscles aggressively, China did the unthinkable. It created artificial islands with a land mass of over 3200 acres. At least three of these islands have been militarised. The Paracel and Spratly islands have enhanced Chinese offensive capabilities.
Unlike the later day Dragon Debt Trap (DDT) victims, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei and Philippines did not wallow in despair. They extended their exclusive economic zones beyond their shores. It was a tit for tat move by an unequal in size and might.
This daring act put brakes on the Chinese march even as escalations and stand-offs became a routine.
The territorial dispute has not, however, stalled trade expansion.
For two reasons.
One mutuality of interest. Two heavy dependence of the export-oriented Chinese manufacturing sector on import of raw materials and components from Asean member – states.
China’s trade volume with 10 Asean nations has nearly doubled – from $443 billion (in 2013) to $878 billion (in 2021). Asean has become its biggest trading block today indicating the importance of the region in the geopolitical calculations.
China’s compulsion worked to the advantage of Asean members. Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia amongst others are running a trade surplus with China
Like in South Asia and Africa, China is a source of developmental aid and financial assistance to poor Asean countries.
For instance, Laos and Cambodia joined the Belt and Road Initiative. Cambodia received a little over $860 million as FDI’s from China (until 2020). A similar game plan is being charted out with other neighbours as well to build an exclusive partnership.
Unlike in South Asia and Africa, here in South-east Asia, China has not been able to strike strategic takeovers. There is no significant stake acquisition (in local ventures) either. Clearly the group could not be lured by Chinese promises.
Beijing is slowly coming to grips with the reality that the countries of the region align with their own national interests. And is attempting to mend the relations with each one of them and with the bloc as a whole.
Maintaining of sovereign autonomy is perhaps amongst the most basic principles of the modern nation-state.
In its eagerness to become the single most dominant hegemon of the world, China, under President Xi Jinping, embarked on a path of infringing upon this very basic principle.
Asean nations have stalled the march by showing the red card. There can be no intrusion upon the sovereignty of any nation, big or small, rich or poor.
Chinese leadership may believe in growth at any cost to spread their wings and dominate the world. But this growth cannot come as a trade-off to economic and political autonomy of other nations. This is the message from Asean.
Simply put, Beijing’s strategy failed in the Asean belt. It is trust deficit, stupid!
*The writer is a regular contributor to Poreg from his London perch