China continues to make assiduous attempts towards enhancing its grip on the ASEAN countries. Its two-pronged strategy is based on visible punitive deterrence/action and diplomatic manoeuvrings aimed at exploiting the financial needs of the smaller nations in the neighbouring region. Since ASEAN works on the principle of consensus, it becomes easy for China to create divisions and ensure that it does not take a position unitedly challenging its claim of the nine-dash-line in the South China Sea (SCS).
On the visible punitive deterrence, General Kenneth Wilsbach US Air Force’s Pacific commander stated that the Chinese military flights off Malaysia and Taiwan fall into the category of continuing efforts of China towards destabilisation of the region and underlined that such activities are escalating. On 31st May, 16 Chinese military aircraft flew over hotly contested waters off of Borneo prompting Malaysia’s air force to scramble its jets. In 2019-20, the Chinese ships had encroached into the EEZ of Malaysia resulting in a prolonged standoff. This standoff was aimed at obstructing the drilling operations by the Chinese vessels in five oil blocks off the Malaysian coast. A Chinese government survey vessel, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, operated close to a drillship under contract to Malaysian state oil company Petronas to harass the latter. Other countries similarly witnessed aggressive encroachment into their EEZs. The Chinese vessels had clearly encroached on the vicinity of Natuna islands which led to a standoff between China and Indonesia. On the 3rd April, 2020 a Vietnamese boat with a crew of eight was sunk by a Chinese ship and when two Vietnamese fishing boats attempted to rescue eight fishermen, they were also detained. In March, the Chinese ships encroached into the Philippines’ EEZ.
In recent months, the tempo of Chinese flights across the Taiwan strait has significantly increased, straining Taiwan’s air defence capabilities. “I believe this is a strategy by China to invoke cost for the Taiwan Air Force,” Wilsbach said. Dragon’s aggressive acts are forcing the Taiwanese Air Force to react each time an incursion occurs.
Crucially, Wilbach accused China of seeking to return to the era of vassal states, likening the Communist Party to Chinese emperors that demanded fealty from their neighbours. He stated that China does not believe that there can be multiple superpowers, it believes that there can only be one, and it wants to return to the glory days of imperial China where everybody else was a vassal state, and everybody was subservient to the Chinese emperor. Gen Wilsbach called on nations in the area to keep a close eye on such Chinese activities. He suggested that the United States should be prepared to respond to any miscalculations by China and take action in another country’s airspace as well when necessary.
While he aptly described the CCP’s perception, this has rattled the Chinese authorities. An article by Wei Dongxu, a Beijing-based military analyst, in the official mouth-piece of CCP, the Global Times, blamed Wilsbach for hyping up China’s “militarization” of the SCS and “aggressive actions” that fuelled distrust of China. The article also pointed out that the top officials in the Pentagon were hostile towards China and they sensationalise the China threat theory. The article also stated that the USA’s real intention is to have more military alliance in the Indo-Pacific region an dominate the countries in the region. More interesting are the comments relating to USA “trying to pile pressure on these countries with psychological warfare in order to reach its political and military goals. It is completely groundless to label China’s equal and mutually beneficial relations with its neighbours as “coercion.” The Quad statement had mentioned about undesirability of ‘coercion’ by China, though without naming it.
Alongside, Dragon is continuing its diplomatic efforts to lure the smaller nations for its BRI projects. The ASEAN-China meeting on 7-8 June in the south-western Chinese city of Chongqing was utilised for the Chinese propaganda. The Chinese Foreign Ministry glossing over the recent Malaysian issue, issued a lengthy statement pointing out that the ASEAN-China dialogue platform showed that even though neighbours might sometimes have friction, they can “transform their contradictions into cooperation” for regional peace and stability. It further said: “We must jointly maintain stability in the South China Sea and avoid unilateral actions that may intensify conflicts,” the statement said, calling for a speedy completion of a Code of Conduct in the waterway.”
The fact is that China is creating obstacles in the finalisation of the CoC. It is pressuring its weaker states not to allow the ASEAN to take a position as abloc against the Chinese illegal claims. It is especially targeting Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia for approaching the UN on the issue of the Chinese claims in the SCS. The Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who had stated to take up the issue of the Chinese aggressiveness in then Malaysian EEZ could not attend as he was placed under the quarantine. Significantly, foreign media was not allowed to attend the meeting.
It is well-established on the basis of the Chinese aggressive activities that it is trying to re-define the prevailing global order in its favour. It is responsible for changing the facts on the ground not only in the SCS but in the entire Indo-Pacific region. After creating artificial islands and militarising them and Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea without any regard to the rights of other countries as per the international law, it now moving to create colonies in the Indian Ocean. It has acquired a piece of land exclusively for its use in the vicinity of Gwadar Port in Pakistan. Reports now indicate that it is creating a city in Sri Lanka near the Colombo Port. Its activities have become more audacious in the Indian Ocean. Its ships are moving in the Indian Ocean and even encroaching into the Indian EEZ.
The Quad has been formed to ensure peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. In this ASEAN is central and its various mechanisms are to used for ensuring that that the region remains free from dominance of any single power. Since the ASEAN has to play an important role, it is necessary to ensure that ASEAN is not used as a tool for creating obstacles in the actualisation of the Free, Open and Inclusive Indo-Pacific (FOIP). While its BRI is getting rejected increasingly as it is clear from Thailand’s rejection of Kra Canal project and stiff opposition in Hungary, it is trying to manipulate weaker countries in the ASEAN. This calls for having a preventive strategy by Quad and its supporters to check use of debt trap diplomacy to entice the financially weak nations of ASEAN. Projection of the Chinese sinister design of using its economic power for strategic purposes turning weaker countries into its vassal states is imperative. The strategy also needs to ensure visible advantages to all from the FOIP based on the India’s concept of Security and Growth for All in the region (SAGAR).
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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