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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Elephants Dance: China moves in Southeast Asia

Nice piece by David Fullbrook in the Asia Times on China's strategic Southeast Asian embrace. The U.S. and Chinese elephants are engaged in a strategic dance and when elephants dance....
Beijing's friendly overture would appear to mark a significant strategic departure, with China moving toward more limited multilateralism rather than its historical unilateralism to advance its regional-security interests. Developing cooperation with neighboring militaries would hypothetically help China secure its porous southern periphery and free up more resources for projecting its power and influence globally.

China is implementing what appears to be a two-phased strategy toward the region, characterized first by promoting growing economic and investment linkages and now by offering limited military assistance. It's a well-calculated gambit aimed at stealing a march from the United States, specifically through the development of competing linkages and personal relationships with individual ASEAN members' militaries.

China's strategic overtures obviously have the US on edge. This week, Washington announced that it would indeed stage its annual "Cobra Gold" joint military exercises with Thailand. Those exercises, the largest in Southeast Asia and which have in the past included troops from Singapore and Malaysia and observers from China, had been in doubt because US law prohibits certain types of military assistance to governments that seize power through anti-democratic means - as was the case with last September's Thai coup. Soon thereafter, Beijing attempted to fill the military gap by offering Thailand US$49 million in military aid and training.
Beijing arguably started to embrace military multilateralism in the late 1990s with the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which loosely links four Central Asian states, Russia and China together through combined training and patrols in fighting against terrorism, extremism and separatism. China's trade and investment have since risen sharply in Central Asia, giving it greater influence to counter America's regional strategic designs, which included military bases in Uzbekistan for a few years and the ongoing use of a base in Kyrgyzstan, on China's border.

If diplomatically possible, China would doubtless like to lead a similar security organization for Southeast Asia - a particularly strategic passageway for China's booming seaborne trade with India, the Middle East, Africa and Europe, which passes through the region's busy and congested shipping lanes.

Moreover, Southeast Asia is fast emerging as an important supplier of China's industrial commodities and energy, and the region as a whole now runs a trade surplus with China. China is set to displace the US as ASEAN's top trade partner as early as next year, a position the Sino-ASEAN free-trade agreement should cement when it comes into force in 2010. Meanwhile, there is still no sign of a counterbalancing free-trade proposal with the US.

To be sure, longtime disputes among ASEAN's member states, driven alternately by nationalism, territorial disagreements and historical rivalries, have given the lie to the group's pretense of harmony and have complicated China's attempts to push through universally accepted proposals - particularly on military matters. The United States' still-strong influence plus ASEAN's traditional distrust of multilateral security arrangements have meant China has had to tread carefully for the past decade.
China has notably not made any hard demands on ASEAN, in effect practicing the group's own adherence to "non-interference" in other countries' domestic affairs. At the same time, Beijing is now adroitly and aggressively leveraging its recent successful diplomacy and growing economic linkages to overcome historical distrust and build new strategic assurances aimed at displacing the United States' strategic influence over the region. And judging by ASEAN's warm response to its recent overtures, China's grand designs are proceeding very much as planned.

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