Southeast Asia must learn to live with China's sometimes too-tight embrace
Zuraidah Ibrahim says that increasingly, as Asean comes under the Chinese orbit, it becomes open not just to the gains of economic cooperation but also growing security anxieties
A touchstone for cold war experts back in the day was the fabled domino theory. The fear was that one country collapsing under the chokehold of communism would cause its neighbours to also fall like dominoes.
This terrifying proposition explained partly American intervention in the Vietnam war. Fast-forward 40 years after the fall of Saigon and then the demise of communism, and Southeast Asia is wringing its hands over another kind of domino effect.
It is the economic embrace of China as it dangles investment and trade, infrastructural projects such as rail links threading their way through southwestern China into Southeast Asia, and sea linkages via the new maritime Silk Road, powered by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. This unstoppable tide of bounty sweeping through Southeast Asia will tether the region to China in ways never seen before.
The geopolitical ramifications of such economic interdependence have yet to be fully understood. Yet, even as this plays out, a reverse domino effect is at play: instead of blocks falling down, Beijing is erecting structure after structure in the South China Sea.
China claims sovereignty of over 90 per cent of the South China Sea, a waterway endowed with oil and gas reserves. Its recent stepped-up programme of building artificial islands gives Beijing a greater ability than ever to project military power in the region, say analysts.
Of course, China is no Soviet Union. Southeast Asians do not expect China to want or to be able to overthrow regimes. Indeed, for many governments around the world, Chinese expansionism is a breath of fresh air, since it is purely economic and not ideological.
In Southeast Asia, however, what could be a win-win deepening of relations is marred by China's big-power behaviour in relation to the South China Sea. At the Asean summit of 2012, the 10 countries for the first time were unable to issue a communiqué - apparently due to the chair, Cambodia, doing China's bidding. The subtext was clear: the warm economic handshake could as easily turn into an arm twist.
These twin forces of economic friendship and military forcefulness are fast shaping the schizophrenic character of the relationship between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, four of whose members - the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei - have overlapping claims with it in the South China Sea.
Why have the Chinese taken this approach? The short answer is because they can. And they can, because the United States - despite the rhetoric of a pivot to Asia as first pledged by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2011 - has failed to match assertion with action.
The relationship of the US with China is a complex one, predicated on much more than what happens in the South China Sea. The US is also distracted by an impending presidential election and spreading itself thin in the Middle East.
The Chinese know these distractions offer them a window of opportunity to press on with their reclamation activities in the South China Sea to alter the reality on the ground. Any concrete US action - whether in reinvigorating its pivot to Asia idea - will be the decision of a new administration. By the time that happens, the Chinese will have established a new strategic baseline.
To be fair, the Chinese are not the only ones building structures in contested waters. Other claimant states have all tried, to varying degrees, to do the same. As an Asean diplomat told me: "There are no angels here."
By July, the Permanent Court of Arbitration will make a determination as to whether it will hear the case by the Philippines against China's claims and whether, despite China's decision not to participate, the court can make a ruling.
The Philippines is pursuing this option in the misguided belief that any outcome against China will deter Beijing unless it wants to risk facing international condemnation. But the Teflon coating made from the alchemy of its economic might is likely to ensure China can recover from any dent to its reputation.
What can the other states in the region do? At the recent Asean summit in Malaysia, the grouping issued a statement expressing "serious concerns" that China's reclamation activities had "eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region".
While these might be its strongest words yet, Asean has in effect been rendered powerless. Work to forge a code of conduct for the South China Sea has proceeded at a snail's pace, even for a group often paralysed by the need for consensus. China has maintained it will only discuss the issues with each country separately.
The reality is that Asean can play only a limited role at best. For now, the anxieties of the smaller states will only grow. The relationship with China will be economically beneficial on the one hand but be sowed with insecurity on the other.
But who can set things at ease? It will not be Asean. It will have to be the US and China coming to a new equilibrium. When that will happen, however, is an open guess. For now, China will seize whatever advantage it can. Small states in the region will have to live with its embrace, even if it can feel like a smother.
Zuraidah Ibrahim is a senior editor at the Post