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OBOR and China’s southeast Asia diplomacy

The "Belt and Road Initiative" and China 's Diplomacy towards Southeast Asia

   Xue Li IWEP/CASS

Li Yongke(China Foreign Affairs University)

 

 

With the launch of the "Belt and Road Initiative," neighboring diplomacy has become a priority for China. China has many neighboring countries, but regarding the Southeast Asian sub-region, what kind of diplomatic conception should China adopt? It depends on the importance of each country in Southeast Asia.

From the perspective of the "Belt and Road Initiative," Southeast Asia itself is the preferred region for the construction of the "21st Century Maritime Silk Road." Both proposed routes of the "21st Century Maritime Silk Road" will go through this area. At the same time, the China-Indochina Corridor for International Economic Cooperation is one of the six major corridors to be constructed under the "Silk Road Economic Belt."

From the perspective of economic cooperation, ASEAN is currently China's third largest trading partner. With the implementation of the upgraded version of the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area, ASEAN may overtake the EU as China's largest trading partner in the future.

From the perspective of people-to-people and cultural exchange, bilateral personnel exchanges between China and ASEAN in 2016 have exceeded 30 million, and there is still much room for growth. ASEAN students received the largest share of Chinese government scholarships. These close ties are unmatched by other sub-regions around China.

From the political perspective, the relationship between China and ASEAN has been stable and friendly with no strategic contradictions. Ranging from participating in the post-war reconstruction of Cambodia to attending the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN has always been the premier stage for China's participation in multilateral diplomacy. ASEAN is also an important platform for China to propose and implement new security concept. Many new security initiatives from China are announced at ASEAN or its platforms. South China Sea Disputes exist between China and some ASEAN member countries, but they are generally under control. A large-scale war is unlikely to break out.

In general, the population of ASEAN is not as large as that of South Asia, and the security cooperation between ASEAN and China is not as good as that of China and Russia. The political relations between ASEAN and China are not as close as China and Pakistan. Even ASEAN's enthusiasm for the "Belt and Road Initiative" may not be as strong as that of Kazakhstan. However, overall ASEAN remains an important dimension for China's neighboring diplomacy. And in some aspects, ASEAN is a predominant area (such as the development of the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road).

Considering the large number, the great differences in size and the level of development, and the status within ASEAN, it is necessary to put Southeast Asian countries into two categories: "island countries" (including Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Timor-Leste, the Philippines and Singapore) and "peninsula countries" (including Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam). Among “island countries”, Malaysia is the top cooperation partner. Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia are key cooperation partners. Timor-Leste and Brunei are general partners. Among “peninsula countries”, Thailand is the top cooperation partner. Laos and Cambodia are key cooperation partners. Myanmar and Vietnam are general partners. Malaysia and Thailand are expected to become China's pivot countries, thus becoming part of a strategic supportingbelt of the surrounding areas. The reasons are as follows:

In the case of "Island countries," Malaysia's economic development is second to that of Singapore in ASEAN. In order to compete with Indonesia for influence within ASEAN, Malaysia hopes to obtain strategic support from outside the region. It has a population of 31 million, of which 21% are ethnic Chinese. Ethnic Chinese in Malaysia have a relatively higher political status than ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1975, the Malaysian government has been friendly most of the time to China. And the Najib government is especially friendly to China. It has adopted a low-key, pragmatic, and bilateral solution in the South China Sea dispute.

In contrast, neither Brunei nor Timor-Leste has systematic importance. They are not very enthusiastic about the "Belt and Road Initiative". Hence, their cooperation with China is limited. In ASEAN, the Philippines and Indonesia both have a large population, political stability, and rapid economic growth. They are more enthusiastic about the "Belt and Road Initiative" and are cooperation partners with great potentials. However, for some reasons, it is hard for them to become top partner countries. There are territorial and maritime disputes between the Philippines and China. Its policy toward China is greatly affected by the preference of the president. But a President only has a six-year term in office, so its policy consistency and stability are insufficient. Indonesia, the largest member state of ASEAN, is committed to becoming the leading nation of ASEAN and tends to limit the influence of other countries. For internal and historical reasons, Indonesia is particularly sensitive to China's rising influence within ASEAN.

Singapore has established itself on commerce and has rapidly become the only developed nation within ASEAN. As a business state, Singapore's domestic and foreign policies have a strong interest orientation. To maximize its security, Singapore relies on the United States externally and implements the "poison shrimp strategy" internally. Singapore acts as an "ASEAN adviser" to magnify its international influence and it vigorously promotes ASEAN integration in order to exert its comparative advantages in investment and technology in a larger market.

On cultural interest, Singapore tries to be the spokesperson for "Asian values” to highlight its own cultural autonomy. Singapore enjoys getting commercial benefits from China and serves as China's " true friend" and "couch for state governance." But Singapore refrains from forming a special relationship with China, especially on security issues. Coupled with the status of a city-state, it is very difficult for Singapore to become China's primary partner. However, Singapore can be an important partner, especially in the economic and cultural fields.

On the "Indochina Peninsula," Thailand is expected to be the "pivot country" and number one partner. Thailand is relatively large and it shares no border with China. Since China's reform and opening, Thailand has maintained friendly relations with China for a long time. In the face of the competitive pressure brought by the rapid development of Vietnam, Thailand is ready to consolidate its position in Indochina Peninsula and ASEAN by strengthening its relations with China. Cambodia is very friendly to China and facing strategic pressure from Vietnam, but it has limited capacity. Laos borders China and is highly dependent on China economically. But Laos is too small and it depends more on Vietnam in politics and security.

Historical memories and territorial disputes have made Vietnam less enthusiastic about the "Belt and Road Initiative." And Vietnam's defensive attitude against China is obvious. Myanmar has some enthusiasm for the "Belt and Road Initiative," but its domestic political situation is not stable enough and it has also kept its guard on China. However, these two countries, Vietnam and Myanmar, are relatively large and developing rapidly. Although China cannot list them as key partners, it is still necessary to identify some key cooperation projects with them.

(Polished by Dr. Zhao Hai, IWEP/CASS)

This piece was published on THE DIPLOMAT on November 28, 2017.

https://thediplomat.com/2017/11/the-belt-and-road-initiative-and-chinas-southeast-asia-diplomacy/ 

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