By Ernest Bower —
China’s neighbors are gravely concerned about what they see as a clear and determined strategy being implemented by Xi Jinping, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party and now Commander in Chief of the People’s Liberation Army. They believe Xi is committed to leveraging China’s indisputable economic power to force some of them to give up sovereign claims to territory, both land and sea. In their eyes, China is seeking to dominate and control not only the South China Sea but the entire region, extending well into the Pacific to what is known as the second island chain.
These concerns are not limited to the five other countries that are claimants to the South China Sea’s disputed areas, but indeed affect all capitals of countries within the Indo-Pacific region, including India, most of South Asia (except Pakistan), the Pacific, and Northeast Asia (except North Korea).
What China’s Asian neighbors want is a China that feels secure, is prosperous economically, and actively participating in regional rule-making. What they fear is that China feels it needs to change the rules around security and economic norms that have produced nearly seven decades of economic growth and progress as well as relative peace in the Asia Pacific. This has put China’s neighbors on edge, making them anxious about advancing their economic engagement through increased trade and investment with China. They fear that the deeper those ties extend, the more leverage Beijing may use to force sovereign concessions.
The rest of Asia wants China to succeed, but it does not want to be controlled by Beijing. It does not want China to dominate in both the security and economic architecture that is developing in Asia. In fact, Asia wants this new architecture to accommodate China and Chinese dreams and ambitions, but not dominate and unbalance the region.
If there is one constant throughout the history of Southeast Asia’s countries since they won their independence in the middle of the twentieth century, it is the quest for respect for their sovereignty, independence, and geopolitical balance.
The Japanese challenged this concept of balance in the 1980s with their economic power, and Southeast Asia eagerly sought more U.S. and European engagement and urged China to step onto the regional stage in response.
Now the region wants to see much deeper engagement from the rest of the world to balance what they fear may be overzealous plans by China to dictate regional rules, redefine sovereign borders and maritime delineations, and to undercut or ignore international law, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The region has deep respect for China, and it welcomes China’s initiatives to build infrastructure through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and One Belt One Road (OTOB) initiative. Yet China’s neighbors are also concerned about governance and how Chinese aid and investment is implemented. Every leader in South and Southeast Asia has expressed concerns about creeping indebtedness due to seemingly low-cost Chinese loans. They are not happy with China for having its companies do almost all of the work on these projects, and they are very upset about the practice of bringing in Chinese labor to build projects and then leaving those workers in the countries after the projects are completed.
No one in Asia questions the reality that China will be a major player in Asia’s twenty-first century economic integration. No one questions the need to have China’s security forces engaged in a structure that will maintain and promote peace and security in the region for this century and beyond. But no other countries in Asia want to be China. They want their own identities, they want international standard rules and norms, and they want to develop as equals with partners including China, the United States, Europe, and others through vehicles like the East Asia Summit (EAS), Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Asia Europe Summit.
China’s mid- to long-term national security and economic interests will be strongly promoted if Beijing can see these facts and embrace them. China will be an influential and positive force for economic prosperity, regional security, and peace if it takes time to listen to its neighbors and partners. That is an outcome the rest of the world has a great interest in promoting.
Ernest Bower is Chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at CSIS.