In Search of a Southeast Asian Response to China’s Bid for Dominance


Editor’s Note: This is the third installment in Patrick Cronin’s series on China’s strategy for dominance in the Asia-Pacific. Check out the first two, “Chinese Regional Hegemony in Slow Motion,” and “How China’s Land Reclamation Fits in its Strategy for Regional Dominance.”

Sometimes order requires enforcing fair rules, even if it risks momentary confrontation.  Such is the case of this week’s overflight of Fiery Cross Reef and other artificial islands by a U.S. P8-A Poseidon patrol aircraft.  Fiery Cross Reef and other reclamation projects represent one of China’s most brazen attempts to make its controversial nine-dash line map claim to own the majority of the South China Sea a fait accompli—well before an international tribunal is expected to pronounce on the legality of that claim.  Fiery Cross Reef is not just a provocative artificial island project, but soon to be a military base from which the People’s Liberation Army and law enforcement can operate ships and planes.

As China has re-emerged in the world, Southeast Asia has risen, too.  The anxieties of rising Southeast Asian countries were largely what prompted a more active U.S. policy, known as the pivot, or rebalance.  The rebalance especially acknowledges the need for greater engagement with traditional and new partners in Southeast Asia, given our longstanding presence in Northeast Asia.  There are both opportunities and risks for the United States in further engaging Southeast Asia, but these decisions should be made in the context of relations between Southeast Asian nations and China. Because the main regional organization is action-averse, it is essential for the United States to assert the global public good of assured access to freedom of navigation and the global commons.  But the United States must continue to work to mobilize regional opinion behind the need to draw the line on bad behavior and fair rules.

ASEAN is a successful political body, providing important and myriad venues for diplomacy.  But the organization is notoriously risk-averse when it comes to confronting serious challenges. China relies on this risk-averseness, and resorts to divide-and-conquer tactics any time the 10 Southeast Asian countries appear to be uniting on anything, even a broad statement, that might be construed as antithetical to China’s interests.  Because Southeast Asian countries have such diverse interests, China is able to find numerous seams to pull apart. Additionally, because all of China’s neighbors in the region enjoy major trading relations with China, Beijing is able to offer incentives (or threaten to withhold them) in exchange for cooperation.  This helps to explain why in 2012, for the first time in the body’s 45-year history, ASEAN foreign ministers failed to issue a joint communiqué, due to disagreements over whether to include the South China Sea as a security issue of concern.

Yet even ultra-cautious Malaysia, which enjoys the largest trading relationship with China among any ASEAN member state, managed to participate in a show of unity in April of this year, declaring that reclamations in disputed waters in the South China Sea had “eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability.”  This recent declaration is a reminder of what unites ASEAN members: namely, the fear of meddling by outside powers.  For the past several years, China has been the main concern on this front, and the Philippines and Vietnam have borne the brunt of China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.  Even so, attempts by the United States to provide military reassurance and presence or to offer assurances to the Philippines, incur a predictable backlash.  That is why it is incumbent on U.S. officials to calibrate efforts to strengthen our access and security cooperation in Southeast Asia, with a sharp understanding of how far the region will go, based on the balance of political forces.  In 2010, Southeast Asian states turned to the United States to provide a clear counterweight to Chinese assertiveness; but most of those official entreaties were behind closed doors and seldom known to their own publics.  We are also seeing accelerated security hedging among the ASEAN nations.  Partly, this involves seeking closer relations with the United States.  But in large measure it is also seeking stronger intra-Asian relations, including with other Indo-Asia-Pacific military partners, including Japan, Australia, the Republic of Korea, and Australia, as well as Britain and France.

The flip side of China’s divide-and-conquer tactics vis-à-vis ASEAN is Beijing’s efforts to deploy protracted trust-building diplomacy, not aimed at concluding agreements (especially binding ones), but rather forestalling them.  Engaging in talks for the sake of talks buys China more valuable time and softens transaction costs while it simultaneously asserts its growing influence in other ways.  Such tactics are not lost on most ASEAN member states, some of whom advise the United States to do what most regional diplomats practice without being told – to use a bit of guile, to demonstrate an ability to stake out seemingly contradictory arguments, and knowing that expressing the whole truth in public all the time is not necessarily the most advantageous course of action in the competitive arena of international affairs.

The majority of ASEAN members, particularly its maritime members, are at least quietly advocating that the United States remains firmly footed in the region, while simultaneously building out a wider network of security partners.  On the other hand, almost all ASEAN countries prefer non-confrontational ways to deal with China. All share the fear, however, that larger outside powers will run roughshod over Southeast Asian interests. China’s flirtation with tailored coercion over the past several years has yielded a number of united front statements, including the April response to the Great Wall of Sand reclamation efforts of China.  But ASEAN unity can also be aimed at the United States, should we allow China to maneuver us into over-reacting or losing the battle of narratives over the best approach for defining and addressing the problems.

Individual ASEAN member states will be more vigorous about protecting their sovereignty claims and rights than the organization as a whole.  Vietnam is particularly capable and experienced at seeking to protect its long coastline.  The Philippines has been pushing back and seeking to expand its capabilities, especially since being shoved aside out of Scarborough Shoal.  A Philippine Supreme Court decision should soon validate the legality of a rotational U.S. presence in the Philippines under its constitution forbidding permanent bases.  That may provide enough incentive for the United States to elevate its alliance umbrella over the Philippines.  But perhaps surprisingly and most important is the maritime awakening sought by Indonesia’s new president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.  While he must continue to play the same balancing game that all actors in the region are playing—balancing economic interests and stability with security interests and rule-making and rule-enforcement—Jokowi has shifted Indonesia from being an exclusive ASEAN country to becoming a regional middle power that deals directly with major outside powers.  The sinking of 41 boats, including a Chinese boat, to demonstrate that Indonesia will enforce its maritime laws, is a symbolic but significant action.

Yet at the end of the day seeking to impose costs on China’s maritime coercion and attempting to deny China substantial gains from bullying will require as much ASEAN unity as that body can muster.  Thus, despite ASEAN’s limitations, the United States should continue to support the Southeast Asian body.  When it does achieve a consensus, it serves as a powerful legitimizing force for international activity.  Moreover, its support is essential for more inclusive regional institutions, such as the East Asia Summit process and the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Plus—the former which sets the high diplomatic agenda by leaders and the latter which offers practical steps forward by defense ministries.  Moving forward, from the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore through the East Asia Summit hosted by Malaysia at the end of the year, it will be essential for the United States to win understanding and support for activities such as overflights and freedom of navigation operations to preserve an open global commons.


Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and the former Director of the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Amanda S. Kitchner.

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