No countries in Asia are willing to or capable of standing up to a domineering China as the Communist Party tightens an iron grip. And that is not a good situation. By Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade
China is undoubtedly a superpower who is able to militarily and economically overwhelm all countries in Asia. Notwithstanding the anti-China sentiments of western countries, for reasons of economic dependence and investment opportunity, Asia is generally tolerant of China and accepts its dominant status.
China is and will remain first and foremost, an authoritarian country under the rule of the Communist Party. With China’s push for global power, disdain for universal values such as democracy and freedom of speech, and the intention to upend the existing international order and replace it with rules that more suited its ambition, western countries whose own interest and status are being threatened are retaliating with a containment strategy that involves forming alliances with Asian countries.
Nevertheless, most Asian countries do not like to be forced to take sides. They know full well that the Chinese Communist Party is against an open and free market, and that the party keeps a tight control on the business industry and will prosecute any company, both local and foreign, if they do not sufficiently show loyalty.
Most Asian countries are not interested in nor do they put a priority on ideology, human rights, fair play or other such universal values much touted by the west. What they do care about is the economy and they wish to leverage on China’s economic resources to further their own agenda. Importantly, they realize that China is not going to change into a democratic country as the West has hoped.
In an incident indicative of the extent some countries went to appease China, in March 2021, about 200 Chinese militia fishing ships sailed into Whitsun Reef, within the Philippine’s exclusive economic zone, and stay put even until now, but President Duterte has chosen not to antagonize China so as to keep financial aids flowing. Just recently in the last week of April, he profusely thanked China for delivering Chinese-made vaccines, saying he was deeply indebted.
However, it must be noted that sooner or later, any overt show of obeisance to China, real or perceived, will trigger backlash from the local population and international community against the ruling parties as well as China, thus jeopardizing investment, businesses, jobs, and reputation, which although is intangible but is nonetheless a valuable asset, and even more so in today’s world. Moreover, there is the more direct danger of inadvertently opening up a window of opportunity for China to interfere in domestic affairs if it so suits their purpose.
China’s maritime power is on display
China has the strongest armed forces in Asia and this has enabled the country to pursue a more assertive maritime policy and to manipulate other weaker countries into submission. General Secretary Xi Jinping sees China as the leader of Asia and that this self-anointed status gives him the right to ignore legally-binding international ruling and infringe on other countries’ maritime sovereignty.
This is most notable in the South China Sea where China is claiming almost the whole area. In addition, China is also involved in territorial dispute with Japan in the East China Sea and has stepped up naval and air drills in the highly militarized Taiwan Strait recently.
The South China Sea, valued for abundant fisheries and underground resources, is also an important and strategic waterway vital to the world’s maritime trade. And yet, no other claimant countries have mounted any rigorous or meaningful challenge to China. If this status quo remains and when, not if, China has total control, it will be detrimental to the global shipping community and all countries that rely on the sea routes for trade as they will be under the mercy of Xi.
As nationalistic fervor reaches a peak under Xi, officials embark on ever more aggressive attacks towards other Asian countries to intimidate them into acquiescence. On the disputed islands, China has pursued extensive land reclamation and built military structures. Authorities also regularly deploy armed Coast Guard and Navy ships and the infamous fishing militia to contested waters to exert control and to chase away other countries’ vessels. In some scuffles, the Chinese even rammed and sunk local boats.
Cementing an iron grip
It is hypocritical of Xi to engage in ongoing negotiations with Southeast Asian countries to draft the Code of Conduct, a set of guidelines to govern safe conduct in the South China Sea expected to be finished by end of the year, while on the other hand, he approved on January 22 the new Coast Guard Law.
This new Law empowers the Chinese to board and inspect foreign vessels in disputed waters and demolish other countries’ structures built on Chinese-claimed islands. But to the alarm of other countries, the Law also authorizes the Chinese to fire weapons at foreign vessels too.
To convincingly pursue his aggressive foreign policy in Asia, Xi recognizes that his military must play a more active role in advancing China’s clout. Thus, looking ahead, to better project power and protect its hegemony from external interference, it is expected that China will continue to grow its maritime prowess, especially in regards to building more warships, and that there will be more military exercises in disputed waters.
It is also speculated that China may pursue overseas military installations and access agreements with neighboring countries. Therefore, tensions will rise in the near future in South China Sea, as well as East China Sea and Taiwan Strait.
From sleeping dragon to wolf warrior
With the establishment of diplomatic relation with China in 1979, the US-led western countries have hoped that a deep engagement would spur fundamental economic and political opening and thus the emergence of a constructive and responsible global stakeholder with a more open society.
However, more than 40 years later, China’s rapid economic development and increased engagement with the world did not lead to the desired outcome but instead to a revival of Maoism under the reign of General Secretary Xi Jinping, who used the accumulated vast financial resources to pursue a comprehensive modernization of the military. For example, there was a budget of US$177 billion for defense spending in 2019. Xi also invested billions of dollars in his signature Belt and Road Initiative, which critics alleged is a debt trap.
Western countries feel that China has exploited the free and open rules-based order to its full advantage to further economic interest and advance political and cultural influences. Ironically, the Communist Party uses democratic social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to insult and attack critics, usually western democracies, while on the other hand, practically killed off freedom of speech and press at home. Be that as it may, it is telling that Xi has brushed off all criticisms, saying “The East is rising and the West is declining”.