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China splits Asean

Publication Date : 06-08-2012


Last week, Singapore again underscored the importance of Asean members standing together when Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam described the failure to agree on a joint communique at the Phnom Penh summit a dent to the grouping's credibility.

The sticking point was Cambodia's actions, as chair, to block mention of the South China Sea disputes. The result was an unprecedented failure to issue a communique. Few were in doubt that Cambodia was intervening on behalf of China.

Yet, it was not the first time it had done so. At the Asean summit in April this year, it kept the disputes out of the formal agenda.

Could it be that just days before the meeting, Chinese President Hu Jintao had visited Phnom Penh, bearing fresh aid to the impoverished country? A Reuters report then spoke of pressure on the Asean chair to not push talks on the South China Sea "too fast".

It would seem Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen needed little persuasion. For sure, he had had close ties with Hanoi from the late 1970s, when he defected to Vietnam.

But memory fades, and loyalties get switched. Besides, it was China that threw him a lifeline in 1997 after he seized power in a coup. Beijing recognised his government, opposed international sanctions against Phnom Penh and provided financial aid.

As relations have tightened between the two sides, "Cambodia has been very supportive of China on matters regarding its 'core interests'", notes Dr Ian Storey, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

But what of the rest of the Asean members in mainland Southeast Asia, some of which share borders with their powerful neighbour to the north? Will the influence of China there widen the schisms in Asean?

"China looms as the primary external force and influence" in mainland Southeast Asia, former diplomat Bronson Percival writes in his book The Dragon Looks South.

Geography, culture, poverty and authoritarian governments in much of the region contribute to China's influence. This grows out of its "political support for authoritarian regimes and economic assistance, as well as the pull of a booming economy and China's sheer looming presence as the giant to the north".

For China, mainland Southeast Asia constitutes its "soft underbelly", and influence over the region helps it to maintain stability along its borders.

It also looks to the region's resources and links to the sea for its landlocked provinces. Myanmar, for instance, is its link to the Indian Ocean.

With China's rise, "the two basic, underlying subsystems in Southeast Asia, on the mainland ... and in maritime Southeast Asia, would emerge from the shadows", writes Percival.

Some states, mainly in the mainland, would align with the rising regional challenger and others, in maritime Southeast Asia, with the current dominant world power, the United States.

Varying influence in region

However, given the complexities of the neighbourhood, a closer inspection shows varying degrees of Chinese influence in mainland Southeast Asia.

For instance, China appears to be losing its grip on Myanmar. Under its previous pariah military leadership, it was heavily dependent on Beijing for over two decades. Under reformist President Thein Sein, however, Myanmar is weaning away.

Naypyidaw last September cancelled a US$3.6 billion dam project that was to supply power to China. The following month, Thein Sein travelled to India, which pledged US$800 million in aid. Last week, as New Delhi prepared to receive Myanmar's defence chief, it said it would train more of its army personnel.

Reforms have led to suspension of Western sanctions. What is more, as it opens its doors to the world, Myanmar might want to prove its regional credentials when it chairs Asean in 2014.

"It is very possible that Myanmar would be less accommodating of China's interests if it means dividing Asean," Percival tells The Straits Times.

Unlike Myanmar, poor, landlocked Laos is still very much dependent on China for economic support. Even so, there are rumblings of unhappiness over Chinese dams in the upper reaches of the Mekong River causing damage downstream.

What Vientiane has done is to adroitly capitalise on Chinese interest to bargain with other donors. In 2005, the World Bank granted a loan for a controversial hydropower project because Laos was exploring Chinese funding, says Associate Professor Evelyn Goh of Royal Holloway, University of London.

As for Thailand, it cosied up to Beijing under the Thaksin government in 2001-2006, with an eye on the economic opportunities that China presented. However, it has also taken care to maintain its security relations with the US, hedging its bets as it has been wont to do in the past.

Given Thailand's propensity to be flexible diplomatically, bending where the wind blows, it will be interesting to see how it acts as the member in charge of Asean-China ties, a task it took over from the Philippines last month.

Vietnam is the country in the region least in thrall to China. Having gained independence in 965AD after 1,000 years under Chinese rule, it had hung on determinedly to its autonomy. Its view of China as a threat rather than protector is reinforced by its territorial disputes with Beijing.

Apart from bilateral ties, China also asserts influence through its free trade agreement with Asean and its participation in the Greater Mekong Subregion projects.

Its sway over mainland Southeast Asia is telling not only in Cambodia's behaviour at the July summit, but also in that of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, which stayed on the sidelines during the row over the South China Sea.

Besides, not everybody has a territorial dispute with China. For that reason, not everybody feels they have to stick their neck out and antagonise the Chinese.

To be sure, this schism in Asean, between mainland and maritime members, is not about to tear the grouping apart. But it does make Asean "a less effective organisation in solving major issues of concern to Southeast Asia" such as its maritime disputes, says Percival.

That said, not everyone is pessimistic about Asean members' ability to overcome their divisions.

As analyst Carlyle Thayer of the University of New South Wales notes, Asean has been able to paper over its fault lines, such as those between its richer and poorer states, "by adopting a broad range of policies that address the individual interests of each state".

No reason why it cannot do the same over the South China Sea.


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