Commentary: China's premature bid for hegemony in Southeast Asia

MANILA: Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Manila on Nov 20 and 21 came at a critical juncture in the evolving regional order. 

This year’s Asian summitries, namely the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) high-level meetings, bore witness to an undeclared Cold War between the United States and China. 

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And Xi’s underwhelming visit to Manila, which failed to seal a strategic alliance, only exposed China’s premature bid for hegemony, which has rattled neighbouring states.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong underscored the stark implications of rising Sino-American tensions for smaller regional states, which may eventually be forced to “to take sides” even if not having to do so is “very desirable.” 

A SWING STATE

As a regional swing state and an American treaty ally, the Philippines has emerged as a critical node in the ongoing Sino-American competition for regional primacy.

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Under President Rodrigo Duterte, the Southeast Asian country has turned into a potential crown jewel for Xi’s “peripheral diplomacy,” which aims to charm estranged neighbours through massive economic inducements. 

Despite high expectations, however, the Chinese leader’s visit failed to produce any major breakthrough on areas of shared concern.

If anything, it even provoked a domestic backlash against tightening bilateral linkages. Far from falling into the Chinese orbit of influence, the Philippines is carefully hedging its bets. This only highlights the agency of smaller powers and the fragility of China’s bid for hegemony in Asia.

China’s President Xi Jinping attends the retreat session during the APEC Summit in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea November 18, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS/David Gray)

PERILS OF TRIUMPHALISM

In many ways, Xi is paying the cost of his misplaced strategic triumphalism, prematurely celebrating China’s search for a place in the sun. In recent months, he has come under criticism at home and abroad for ditching Deng Xiaoping’s “hide and bide” dictum in favour of unrestrained assertiveness on the international stage.

READ: The secret story behind disappearing Deng Xiaoping, a commentary 

No less than Long Yongtu, China’s former chief trade negotiator who oversaw the country’s accession to the World Trade Organisation, has openly criticised the Xi administration for refusing to “think deeply enough” in dealing with international partners, particularly Washington.

As a prominent China expert observed, there are “indication(s) that the disharmony within China’s party elite is increasing.”

China’s rising influence has also provoked backlash across the region, with a growing number of countries, including Maldives, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Australia, revisiting their strategic and economic relations with Beijing. China’s much-vaunted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is now increasingly seen through the lens of Sri Lanka’s debt trap.

READ: Caution rising in China beneath the the Belt and Road Initiative’s shiny facade, a commentary

Add to this China’s ham-fisted “tantrum diplomacy,” which has alienated a lot of smaller nations. This was poignantly on display during the APEC summit, when Chinese diplomats reportedly forced their way into Papua New Guinea’s foreign minister’s office to demand changes to the proposed joint communique.

The upshot was a testy showdown between Washington and Beijing that prevented the APEC, for the first time in its two-decades-long history, from issuing a joint communique. Despite the best efforts of middle powers, particularly Indonesia and Australia, they failed to broker a compromise between the two superpowers on the final language of the joint statement.

For the first time ever, APEC leaders failed to produce a joint declaration (Photo: AFP/SAEED KHAN)

Even worse, China has now provoked a reinvigorated US “pivot” to Asia under the Trump administration, which has stepped up its efforts, together with like-minded regional powers, to constrain Chinese influence across the Indo-Pacific. 

In cooperation with Japan and Australia, Washington has launched the Indo-Pacific Transparency Initiative to track, expose, and counter China’s “debt trap” diplomacy and threats to freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.

Together with Australia, Washington has decided to augment defence and strategic ties with South Pacific countries in order to check China’s growing footprint in the region. And together with India, Japan, and Australia, the Trump administration is countering China’s growing strategic footprint across the Indian Ocean. 

In many ways, this is the real pivot to Asia that many observers had expected earlier.

Richard Javad Heydarian is Manila-based academic and columnist author of “The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy”. This commentary first appeared in the Brookings Institution’s blog Order from Chaos.


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