China, the United States, and Southeast Asia – Contending perspectives on politics, security and economics

China, the United States, and Southeast Asia

Editors:      Evelyn Goh, Sheldon W. Simon (eds)

ISBN:           0415429455

Publisher: Routledge, New York, USA

Year:           2008

Price:         $150.00


Reviewed by Eva Schmitt, University lecturer at ENA, Paris, France.

The present volume is a conference paper designed to explore the relationship Southeast Asian nations have with China, a rather neglected aspect of present-day publications about Southeast Asian politics. The book is very clearly structured and the different chapters look into the economic, political and military problems from different angles. The articles in the book are based on English language sources only, which is rather disappointing and gives the book a rather clinical touch. The rise of China and the cooperation with China occupies many journalists and university teachers in Southeast Asia, publishing in their native language. It would have been an asset to quote their voices and opinions too. The authors of the present volume analyse the shifting relationship between and perspectives of the People’s Republic of China (China) and the Southeast Asian nations. The contributors to this volume explore whether the United States of America’s (USA) and Southeast Asian (SEA) and ASEAN views on China are converging or diverging and why these small and medium states are becoming increasingly important actors, economically, militarily and politically, for both Beijing and Washington.

The book is organized in the classical sections economy, politics and military. Each section is introduced by an article providing an overview of situation, followed by contributions offering a more detailed insight into the rather delicate ASEAN-China-USA relationships.

Etel Solingen’s article “ From ‘threat’ to ‘opportunity’ ? ASEAN, China and triangulation” (pp.17-38) opens the ‘economy section’ and rehearses the economic cooperation and investment behaviour between China and the different ASEAN member states and the prospect of a successfully implemented ASEAN – China Free Trade Area (ACFTA). According to Solingen’s analyses, ASEAN members are far more dependent on exports to China than vice versa. China is importing agricultural goods and raw materials on a large scale from SEA, is building manufacturing plants in Southeast Asian countries and will probably displace local manufacturers by doing so.  China’s strategic investments focus on the exploitation of the natural resources that Southeast Asian countries own abundantly. For example, in the Philippines, China invested heavily in the mining sector, in Indonesia, China purchased the country’s largest oil company. In her outlook and conclusion, Solingen expresses the hope that the Southeast Asian nations will remember their historical role as mediator between cultures and  great  powers in order to enhance their political and economic standing in the global arena.

In his article “ China’s rise and its effect on the ASEAN-China trade relations” (pp.38-56) Suthiphand Chirathivat focuses on the last decade’s rapid changes in ASEAN-China trade and the concern about an economic slowdown of China. He suggests that CAFTA is an important pillar in consolidating ASEAN-China economic integration, with many shortcomings, e.g. rules of origin have not been properly introduced and will enhance the transhipment problem, production structures are most often substituting rather than complementing, poor member states or regions will remain poor or fall even further behind, because they lack the funds for investments and adjustment costs. The most obvious loosers of the trade pact are countries in the direct vicinity of China whose markets are flooded with cheap Chinese goods. In case of an economic downturn or slowdown, he suspects, China will surely enhance export pressures and the vulnerability of ASEAN markets and their dependency on exporting to China will be painfully felt. A roadmap is needed to hedge against the exploitation by Chinese companies and the looming risk of external shocks.

Tan Khee Giap criticises the overall trading modus between China and ASEAN in his contribution “Competitiveness, investment-trade patterns, and monetary and financial integration “ (pp. 56-70). He suggests that China should not be regarded as a single market, but realistically as a collection of economic entities. ASEAN should exploit China’s WTO accession commitments in terms of decreasing the level and dispersion of tariffs. They should also identify market niches and exploit their own comparative advantages. For Giap, the establishment of a reformed and viable finance and monetary system is paramount. The development and expansion of a regional bond and securities market is the most difficult but also most urgent task to hedge against the next wave of Chinese investments in the financial sector of ASEAN countries.

Mikkal Herberg (pp.70-89) analises how China’s energy hunger might influence her economic and political relations with Southeast Asia. Presently, China is the second largest energy consumer after the USA and her greatest fear is “strategic encirclement” by the USA in the Middle East and Central Asia. To escape this perceived predicament, China became the largest offshore oil producer in Indonesia and signed several treaties with neighbouring countries to jointly exploit the oil riches of the Spratly Islands. On the other hand, China is painfully aware of her lack of a blue water navy, US dominance of the sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) and the threat of terrorist attacks. In case of an economic downturn, Herberg anticipates that China will underpin her historical maritime claims with military means and try to intersect SLOCs.

The main question of the second part is: ‘Will China become the predominant power in the region and is it capable to marginalize or even substitute US dominance in Southeast Asia’?

Robert Sutter (pp. 91-107) assessed in his introductory article the current state of involvement of China with Southeast Asia, China’s attempt to create a sino-centered political sphere of influence and Southeast Asian nations’ attempt to hedge against these transparent  endeavours. For the last fifty years, China tried to clear their periphery from great power influences, mainly the USA and the former USSR.  In diplomatic circles, China tried to offset US influence by signing ‘Asia only’ trade agreements, in the military field, she spent huge sums of money to build up a blue-water navy. Southeast Asian leaders see their interests well served by a closer cooperation with China, but are well aware of the looming Taiwan question and the possibility that China might solve territorial disputes in the South China Sea with military means. To hedge against regional and domestic instability, they are fostering their close and cooperative ties with the USA and other regional powers, like Australia and New Zealand.

Alice Ba (pp. 107-128) picks up the thread and analyses ASEAN’s great power dilemmas. The post Cold War period raised questions and uncertainties about future US commitment to Southeast Asia. China seemed to be a good alternative to counterbalance US dependency and US demands of political liberalization and human rights issues. US and Japanese performances as economic superpowers were perceived as inconsistent, disappointing and receding during the last decade. A long standing complaint about the USA is the obvious unimportance her leaders attach to the region. To hedge against this perceived negligence, Southeast Asian leaders intensified and improved their contacts with China that began to pay closer attention to her Southeast Asian neighbours in the 1990s, by attending conferences, signing treaties about the exploitation of oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea and supported them during the Asian financial crisis. To avoid a renewed dependency on one partner, ASEAN signed bilateral free trade agreements with the USA, Japan, New Zealand, India and Brunei.

The Republic of Indonesia, is the largest country in Southeast Asia and the largest Muslim state in the world. Irman Lanti describes the decay of US-Indonesian relations and the rise of  new friendly feelings towards China (pp.128-141). For Indonesia, membership in ASEAN became one of the most important pillars of her foreign policy. The US arms embargo due to the badly handled East Timor crisis and the 2002 invasion into Afghanistan of he international community alienated the most robust supporters of US dominance in Southeast Asia: the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) and the very powerful Muslim groups. With President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s signature under a 2005 “Strategic Partnership Agreement”, a temporary climax in the relations between China and Indonesia was reached. For TNI a closer relationship with China meant an additional source of arms’ supply and the Muslim majority is contended to have marginalized US influence. However, there is no intention to substitute the US security umbrella by a Chinese one. The civilian, military and religious leaders in Indonesia are well aware that in a case of economic slowdown or the outbreak of a Taiwan crisis, China will forget about her pledges of friendship and peaceful cooperation.

The last part of the present volume focuses on the military modernization efforts of China and its implication for Southeast Asia and the USA.

Paul Godwin (pp.145-167) provides the reader with an American perspective on the military development of the last decade. The USA was and still is at the centre of Beijing’s security concerns. Modernization and informatization of all three military services is given maximum priority. The government supports acquisitions from abroad, especially Russia, and heavily funds R&D programs in space systems and anti-satellite systems. The current military strategy focuses on anti-access strategies and ‘integrated network electronic warfare’ to seize battlespace in the early stages of a conflict. The Chinese People’s Liberation Forces (PLA) still have not enough modern weaponry and modern military platforms. PLA Navy (PLAN) will hardly be able to sustain a prolonged combat operation in the South China Sea. The buildup of an indigenous military-industrial complex proceeds rather quickly. The Chinese IT sector has a very close working relationship with the military, international cooperation with EU, Brazil and Russia provides additional knowledge. The military modernisation of China’s joint forces presents a potentially dangerous trend that only Japan and India might be able to match.

For Michael Chambers (pp.167-180) China’s security interests are threefold:1) to rid her backyard, meaning Southeast Asia of any other contending great power, 2) to secure energy supplies by controlling SLOCs and thirdly, to manifest their territorial claims in the South China Sea. Southeast Asian states are aware of their status as ‘backyard’ of China and therefore maintained and enhanced their good relations with Japan, India and the USA. To evaluate China’s military ambitions because there is no overarching system of thought behind her actions expect the guarding of national interests which change from issue to issue. The USA response to this new security environment was to focus on places, not bases. Cooperative security locations in Southeast Asia became vital for her new approach to maintain US interests and a security umbrella for all Southeast Asian nations.

Bernard Loo ( pp.185-201) assumes that China can only influence Southeast Asian political dynamics by conventional land warfare or by aggressively promoting their arms sales. He considers the latter option for more realistic. Southeast Asian nations themselves try to modernize their joint forces, also purchasing traditional weapons from China. Defence will remain a national affair in Southeast Asia, since all ideas or propositions of a defence alliance, like NATO, were quickly dismissed.

Each of the contributers voice their qualms about the new friendship between ASEAN and Southeast Asian nations and China, especially on the economic front. Most of them stress the importance of establishing an equilibrium of dependencies and underline the significance to market their own resources and riches by themselves. They all failed to mention that 1)  China began to remember her Southeast Asian neighbours in the early 1990s, shortly after the Tian’an men Massacre,  when she  herself had  pariah status among the leading nations; 2) Her often praised move not to devalue the renminbi any further, was not a friendly gesture toward her bankrupt neighbours, but a necessity caused by domestic pressures (inflation) and the fear of losing their growing credibility among foreign investors and jeopardize her WTO entry procedures; 3) Southeast Asian nations have existed for two millennia in the immediate or distant vicinity of China and have accumulated trade and military experiences and memories with their giant neighbour and know how to deal with or defend themselves against China. Another tenor of the book is the ambivalent attitude of the Southeast Asian nations and ASEAN toward the USA and vice versa. The authors mention the perceived weakness and the perceived lack of interest of the USA among the Southeast Asian peoples, but their trust in and reliance on US military strength and prowess in the case of a hot war. This contradiction was not rationalised with some explanations. The present volume will be useful for readers who are familiar with the history of Southeast Asia, ASEAN, China and the USA.  No background knowledge or explanations are given, not even a map of Southeast Asia or ASEAN nations. It is a valuable contribution for any scholar of Southeast Asian politics and/or history because it provides a diversified view on the problems we will have to tackle in the near future.