Robert G. Sutter
Robert G. Sutter is professor of practice of international affairs at the Elliott School of George Washington University. His earlier fulltime position was visiting professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University (2001-2011). A Ph.D. graduate in History and East Asian Languages from Harvard University, Sutter has published 21 books, over 200 articles and several hundred government reports dealing with contemporary East Asian and Pacific countries and their relations with the United States. His most recent book is U.S.-China Relations: Perilous Past, Uncertain Present (third edition: Rowman & Littlefield 2018). Sutter’s government career (1968-2001) saw service as the director of the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division of the Congressional Research Service, the National Intelligence Officer for East Asia and the Pacific at the US Government’s National Intelligence Council, and the China division director at the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
Articles by Robert G. Sutter
Supported by Chinese officials and authoritative commentary, President Xi Jinping continued a moderate and cooperative posture toward Southeast Asia in early 2018, reaching a highpoint in Xi’s keynote address on April 10 at the annual Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan Province. Then, the posture switched dramatically to the surprise of many at home and abroad. On April 12, Xi appeared in military uniform addressing troops in the South China Sea participating in the largest naval review in China’s history. Perhaps signaling the United States, Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, and others challenging Chinese activities in the South China Sea, the switch starkly showed the kind of power Beijing is prepared to use in pursuit of its national objectives. Most other Chinese actions toward Southeast Asia and involving the South China Sea in first four months of 2018 emphasized the positive, with China making major advances in relations, especially with the Philippines.
President Xi Jinping’s marathon report at the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress in October emphasized an ever more powerful and rejuvenated China strongly advancing territorial and other interests in regional and global affairs. China’s success in constructing artificial islands in the South China Sea was cited as one of Xi’s many notable accomplishments. Xi and Premier Li Keqiang adopted a more moderate and accommodating tone in November in their first foreign visits after the Congress. Xi made official visits to Vietnam and Laos concurrent with his participation at the APEC Economic Leaders Meeting in Vietnam. Li made an official visit to the Philippines in conjunction with his participation in the East Asia Summit (EAS), the ASEAN+ 3 Summit, the China-ASEAN Summit, and a meeting of the leaders of 16 nations involved in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Some commentators depicted the moderation as part of a broader trend in China’s foreign affairs; however, Beijing has traditionally adopted a softer approach during the annual Asia-Pacific leaders meetings, presumably to avoid unwanted controversy.
Though periodically distracted by the North Korea crisis that intruded on deliberations during the ASEAN Regional Forum and other ASEAN meetings in Manila, China-Southeast Asia relations remained focused on the South China Sea. China and ASEAN reached agreement on a framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea that supported Beijing interests. Modest advances in Chinese control of the territory and resources of the South China Sea continued while Beijing rebuffed Philippine and Vietnamese efforts to unilaterally drill for oil and gas in their exclusive economic zones that fall within China’s broad claim. Challenges posed by US freedom on navigation exercises and statements by US and allied leaders at odds with China’s policies and practices were dismissed as Chinese propaganda outlets highlighted Xi Jinping’s personal leadership in China’s success in the South China Sea amidst the hagiography for him prior to the 19th Party Congress that will be held this fall.
Chinese officials showed confidence and satisfaction that the cooling tensions in the South China Sea demonstrated increasing regional deference to Beijing’s interests while China’s economic importance to Southeast Asia loomed larger in a period of anticipated international retrenchment. They remained alert to possible actions by the United States, Japan, Australia and South China Sea claimant states that might upset the recent positive trajectory, but generally saw those states preoccupied or otherwise unwilling to push back strongly against Chinese ambitions. The way seemed open for steady consolidation and control of holdings and claimed rights along with a Chinese supported code of conduct on maritime activity in the South China Sea, diplomatic initiatives to promote closer ties and reduce regional suspicion of Chinese intentions, and an array of economic blandishments in line with Beijing’s ambitious Silk Road programs.
Chinese leaders steered relations in Southeast Asia to their advantage after successfully countering the adverse ruling of the arbitral tribunal in The Hague against China’s controversial claims in the South China Sea. The remarkable turnabout in the Philippines, from primary claimant to pliant partner, and notable restraint on the South China Sea disputes by other claimants and concerned powers allowed Beijing to seek greater regional influence. In the closing months of 2016, Beijing made major advances with visits by the Philippine president and Malaysian prime minister, Premier Li Keqiang’s participation at ASEAN and East Asia Summit meetings in September, and President Xi Jinping’s participation at the APEC Leaders Meeting in November. China adopted a stronger regional leadership role as the US failed to implement important initiatives, notably the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The main uncertainty in China’s positive outlook was President-elect Donald Trump who repeatedly criticized China, foreshadowing a less predictable and less reticent US approach to differences with China.
Tensions over South China Sea territorial disputes dominated relations throughout the summer months of 2016. Fearing that the UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal case would go against China, Beijing took remedial steps in the lead-up to the July 12 ruling to show resolve to domestic Chinese constituencies and to counter international pressures. With the Tribunal’s award even more negative for China than most anticipated, Beijing’s attacks on the arbitral panel and warnings to neighbors and the US intensified. They were accompanied by shows of force in the South China Sea. Given the restraint of others, after a few weeks registering intense indignation, Chinese officials and commentary also moderated their rhetoric. Whether the Chinese shift to moderation was tactical or strategic remains to be seen.
Relations in early 2016 were dominated by China’s unremitting efforts to expand its control in disputed territory in the South China Sea in the face of complaints, maneuvers, and challenges by regional governments and concerned powers. US-led challenges to Chinese expansion included expanded military presence and freedom of navigation operations accompanied by strong rhetoric from US defense leaders warning of Chinese ambitions. The constructive outcome of the US-China meeting on March 31 reinforced indications that neither Washington nor Beijing sought confrontation. Against that background, the responses of Southeast Asian governments remained measured. They followed past patterns of ambiguous hedging against China’s assertiveness, demonstrating some increased criticism of China, and greater willingness to link more closely with the US to dissuade China’s disruptive expansionism.
President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang led Chinese government officials in responding in measured and moderate ways to regional challenges and criticisms as Beijing defended South China Sea claims and advanced its regional influence. Moderation after a period of strong assertiveness replicates similar shifts in 2013 and 2014. Those shifts turned out to be tactical, lasting a few months each; possibly timed to avoid negative consequences for Chinese leaders facing public acrimony during the APEC, ASEAN and East Asian Summit meetings that occur each fall. Developments in 2015 suggest a more lasting period of moderation, though there is no sign of change in the Chinese positions on various disputes.
China has made significant gains in advancing control in the South China Sea. Its bold tactics involving massive dredging and rapid construction, shows of military force, deployments of its Coast Guard fleet, and movement of massed fishing vessels and large oil rigs warned of China’s power and determination to have its way. Apart from the Philippines and Vietnam, China’s Southeast Asian neighbors have adopted a low posture on the advances. Nevertheless, US rhetoric has become increasingly strident and it has deployed military forces. Japan and Australia also took steps to counter the Chinese moves. Malaysia, this year’s ASEAN chair, allowed a full discussion of the South China Sea disputes at the ASEAN foreign ministerial meetings in August. Placed on the defensive, Beijing offered words of reassurance and conciliation, emphasizing common interests with ASEAN and the US in peaceful economic development and other areas. But these tactics may have limited impact outside China.
Beijing’s recent economic initiatives with neighboring countries focus on the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Chinese Silk Road Fund. The Boao Forum featured a keynote speech by President Xi Jinping emphasizing the AIIB and Silk Road Fund support for infrastructure connectivity with neighbors to create a “common destiny.” Against that positive background, lower-level Chinese officials, using carefully measured language, rebuffed complaints by the Philippines, Vietnam and the US protesting China’s rapid creation and expansion of islands through massive dredging and follow-up construction of facilities. Senior leaders did respond sharply when Myanmar armed forces killed Chinese civilians in a cross-border air attack in March. In a departure from past practice, ASEAN leaders publicly registered serious concern about the land reclamation in the South China Sea.
President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders were actively engaged in Southeast Asia. They established or reinforced initiatives that employ Chinese wealth and economic connections to attract neighbors to China, including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Maritime Silk Road through Southeast Asia. Against this background, attention to China’s territorial disputes in the South China Sea declined and efforts to stabilize relations with Vietnam moved forward. The implications of these Chinese initiatives remain hard to determine as China has endeavored before to focus on positive features of mutual development only to find changing circumstances lead to differences over sovereignty claims, overshadowing common ground.
China’s deployment of an oil rig along with a protecting fleet in the Paracel Islands shocked the region and particularly Vietnam, the other main claimant to these islands. Large-scale dredging to create Chinese-controlled islands in the disputed Spratly Islands was also observed. These advances demonstrate how far Beijing is prepared to go in advancing its broad territorial claims in the South China Sea. Mass demonstrations in Vietnam in response to the oil rig deployment turned violent and caused widespread damage. Beijing stood firm in blaming others for negative consequences and dismissed charges that its territorial advances were counterproductive. The removal of the oil rig in mid-July, earlier than expected, was interpreted outside China as designed to reduce tensions. Major foreign policy speeches by senior Chinese leaders emphasized the positive in China’s commitment to development and peaceful coexistence.
Chinese efforts to shift the emphasis toward positive economic and diplomatic initiatives and to play down South China Sea territorial disputes foundered in early 2014. Beijing’s assertiveness and advances involving fishing regulations, air defense rights, and maritime activities based on China’s vague and broad territorial claims received repeated, strong US executive branch criticism and firmer opposition in Congress. The US was joined by Japan, the Philippines, and Australia. Chinese media noted President Obama’s effort to sidestep direct criticism of China during stops in Malaysia and the Philippines in his April visit to Asia, though the Philippine-US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement was widely criticized. While Southeast Asian media also registered concerns with Chinese assertiveness, most governments tended to avoid criticism. Nevertheless, Malaysia and Indonesia voiced concern about China’s broad territorial ambitions.
Chinese policy and behavior toward Southeast Asian countries shifted with positive initiatives announced in carefully orchestrated moves. Beijing muted its tough stance on disputes in the South China Sea and curbed recent publicity regarding Chinese resolve to advance control in disputed maritime territory. However, there has been little evidence of substantive change in Chinese positions or ambitions. China muffled polemics with the Philippines, but strained Sino-Philippines relations seemed to explain China’s initially meager response to calls for assistance in response to the Typhoon Haiyan. Meanwhile, Beijing’s establishment of an ADIZ in the East China Sea raised angst about China taking similar action in Southeast Asia. The widely publicized deployment of China’s aircraft carrier to the South China Sea in late November for several weeks prompted commentary suspicious of Chinese intentions.
China’s tough stand on maritime territorial disputes evident first in 2012 confrontations with the Philippines in the South China Sea and Japan in the East China Sea has endured into 2013. Leaders’ statements, supporting commentary, military and paramilitary activity, economic developments, and administrative advances all point to determined support of an important shift in China’s foreign policy with serious implications for China’s neighbors and concerned powers. China’s success in advancing its control of disputed areas in the South China Sea and its overall assertiveness in support of broad territorial claims along its maritime rim head the list of reasons why the new policy is likely to continue and intensify. Few governments are prepared to resist.
Chinese leaders reinforced the sinews of power to coerce and intimidate others from challenging Beijing’s South China Sea claims. They averred unwavering determination to defend and advance the claims and uphold China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. At the same time, they continued to emphasize China’s broad commitment to a path of peaceful development and expanding mutually beneficial relations with neighboring countries, the US, and others. In effect, they sustained the pattern of the past year, which established a choice. Those countries that pursue policies and actions at odds with Chinese claims will meet extraordinary coercive and intimidating measures; those that mute opposition or acquiesce regarding Chinese claims are promised a peaceful and mutually beneficial relationship with a more powerful China.
China’s efforts to maintain recent gains and further strengthen its South China Sea maritime territorial claims dominated China-Southeast Asia relations during the final months of 2012. Aggressive patrols by maritime security administration and fishing fleets along with diplomatic initiatives and administrative measures were supported by Chinese media commentary that emphasized patriotism and the validity of China’s sovereignty claims. Diplomatic initiatives included several high-level exchanges that emphasized the promise of increased beneficial relations for those who support or acquiesce to Chinese territorial claims. Meanwhile, ASEAN remained in disarray and the prospect for moving forward on a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea seemed unlikely.
The primary focus of attention in the relationship over the summer was the ongoing dispute over territorial claims in the South China Sea as China set forth implicit choices for the Southeast Asian disputants and others with an interest in the region. Two paths – one focused on a demonstration of China’s growing power and the other on positive aspects of Chinese engagement with Southeast Asia – are emerging as China continues to define its response to the conflict. Meanwhile, ASEAN struggled with finding a sense of unity in the face of disagreement among members regarding the territorial disputes. Elsewhere, China sought to reaffirm its friendly relations with Myanmar while seeking reassurance that the leadership in Naypidaw remained committed to previously agreed-upon projects.
Chinese interchange with Southeast Asia featured President Hu Jintao’s visit to Cambodia. The unusual attention was related to China’s efforts to manage disputes with claimants in the South China Sea and Cambodia’s appointment as the chair of ASEAN. Playing host at the Boao International Forum, Vice Premier Li Kejiang supported Hu’s emphasis on managing disputes diplomatically. Chinese leaders also endeavored to solidify relations with officials from several regional governments, emphasizing the importance of growing economic ties. Chinese commentary generally supported China’s South China Sea claims in carefully measured terms, though a widely publicized faceoff between Chinese and Philippine ships over fishing rights in a disputed area was accompanied by strong warnings to the Philippines as well as Vietnam, and repeated charges against the US along with accusations against Russia and India.
China endeavored to win regional influence and goodwill by emphasizing reassurance and mutually beneficial relations with Southeast Asian counterparts. Nevertheless, it failed to keep the issue of the South China Sea off the agenda at the East Asia Summit as Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was placed on the defensive and compelled to defend China’s approach to resolving territorial and maritime security issues related to China’s broad claims and sometimes assertive actions. Official Chinese commentaries reacted to the setback in Bali with criticism directed at the US, but they tended to avoid hyperbole sometimes seen in unofficial Chinese media. Official commentaries were measured as they depicted various economic, political, and security initiatives during President Obama’s trip to the region as challenges to Chinese interests. They also registered opposition to initiatives by Japan and India regarding Southeast Asia and the South China Sea that were seen as at odds with Chinese interests. Myanmar’s decision to stop a major hydroelectric dam project being built by Chinese firms added to China’s challenges and complications as it raised questions about China’s influence in the country while Myanmar’s new civilian government tried to improve relations with the US and other powers.
The moderation and reassurance seen in the public posture of top-level Chinese civilian leaders in their attentive interaction with Southeast Asian countries in the first third of the year gave way to rising tensions and widely publicized disputes centered on differing claims in the South China Sea. Senior Chinese officials portrayed China as reactive and defensive in the face of increasing encroachment on the part of Vietnam and the Philippines in particular, and what they saw as self-serving meddling by the US. Despite often reassuring words, the pattern of Chinese behavior in disputed areas in recent months undermined regional and broader international sympathy for China’s position. Vietnamese and Philippine oil exploration vessels met with intimidation by Chinese patrol vessels, and in the case of Vietnam, repeated damage to underwater survey gear. Some Vietnamese fishermen were beaten by Chinese authorities, and Philippine fishermen were shot at by Chinese patrol vessels. Based on available reporting, the various incidents followed a common practice of China using superior power and coercion to pressure and force perceived intruders to retreat.
Philippine and Vietnamese leaders were unusually outspoken in disputing Chinese actions and claims. Their efforts to mobilize support for a more unified effort in ASEAN to encourage China to moderate its actions and claims were duly criticized by Chinese official media. Also criticized were efforts to bring the disputes before the United Nations and to seek stronger support from the US and other concerned powers.
Some international media and experts forecast rising tensions leading to military conflict, but all sides strove to balance the public disputes and protests with active diplomacy to avoid conflict. Vietnamese and Philippine leaders, while condemning Chinese policies and practices, stayed in close contact with Chinese officials and engaged in positive negotiations and other interchanges. ASEAN and China reached a largely symbolic but nonetheless important agreement, establishing guidelines for implementing the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. The US and China carried out their first official dialogue dealing with Asia-Pacific issues including the South China Sea. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed her active participation at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Indonesia during July with a special meeting with State Councilor Dai Bingguo in China. Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie paid the first visit by a Chinese official of his rank to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June, where he engaged in discussions on the South China Sea and consulted with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. South China Sea issues also were a feature of commentary by US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen and his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Chen Bingde, during Mullen’s visit to China in July.
Following last year’s strong Chinese criticisms of US and regional moves seen directed against Chinese policies in Southeast Asia, the reassuring message of good neighborliness and cooperation that Chinese leaders and commentary reverted to at the end of 2010 continued into 2011. The shift was reflected through more positive attention to Southeast Asia and other neighbors, seeking to advance extensive Chinese engagement, especially rapidly growing economic interchange, while endeavoring to play down differences over territorial disputes and other questions. Wariness remained over US policies and practices, but disputes were registered less frequently and in less strident tones than in much of 2010. The treatment was consistent with the improvement in China-US relations registered in Chinese commentary coincident with the prelude and aftermath of President Hu Jintao’s January visit to Washington.
In contrast with the assertiveness and truculence seen in much of the previous year, China’s handling of issues in the South China Sea remained moderate, although it showed few signs of compromise, seeking instead to “shelve” differences or engage in protracted diplomacy. China duly countered actions and positions by other disputants, notably the Philippines and Vietnam. US officials reported that the Chinese Navy had become less assertive in shadowing US Navy ships operating in contested waters along China’s rim. There were few disclosures regarding the results of Chinese consultations with ASEAN representatives seeking to implement a code of conduct in the disputed South China Sea. Meanwhile, China endeavored to solidify relations with neighboring Myanmar by sending a senior Communist Party leader to the country’s capital in April, the first foreign leader to visit Myanmar following the establishment of the newly elected civilian government there.
Following last quarter’s strong criticisms of US and regional moves seen directed against Chinese policies, Chinese leaders and commentary this quarter reverted to a reassuring message of good neighborliness and cooperation. Senior leaders interacted constructively and official Chinese media gave repeated emphasis to positive and mutually beneficial relations. Wariness of US policies and practices was registered in lower-level commentaries while Chinese officials interacted in business-like ways with US counterparts over regional issues. China consulted with ASEAN representatives seeking to implement a code of conduct in the disputed South China Sea, and a working group meeting was held in Kunming, China on Dec. 21-23. Handling of issues in the South China Sea was more moderate than the confrontational approach witnessed in Chinese actions and publicity over fishing and other rights in disputed waters in the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea. On the other hand, even reassurances underlined a determination to rebuff violations of China’s “core interest” in protecting territorial claims. Some military exercises and enhanced patrols by Chinese ships also were noted in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, China’s positive reaction to the November elections in Myanmar was in line with longstanding Chinese support for the authoritarian military leadership.
China was on the defensive this quarter, reacting to interventions by the US, including a notable statement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the annual ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Hanoi regarding the South China Sea. The ARF meeting also saw a new US commitment, backed by ASEAN, to participate actively in the East Asian Summit, raising the profile of that regional body over China’s preference for Asian-only regional groups. Further complicating China’s regional calculus were prominent advances in US relations with Vietnam shown during celebrations of a US-Vietnam anniversary in August that involved exercises with a US aircraft carrier deployed near disputed regions of the South China Sea. Chinese officials and commentary in Chinese media at first countered that the US actions were self-serving and destabilizing. Those attacks meshed with public Chinese attacks on concurrent US military exercises with South Korean forces in reaction to North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean warship. Later, some Chinese commentary dissented from the harsh public approach, and by the end of the quarter, the criticism of the US and others over the South China Sea disputes and other issues subsided. For the time being at least, it appeared that China will remain focused on publicly stressing trade and reassuring diplomacy in Southeast Asia, while defending its territorial claims and continuing to build military capabilities.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao traveled to the remote Myanmar capital during a swing through Asia in May and June, marking the first official visit by a Chinese premier in 16 years. Wen had planned to visit Brunei, Myanmar, and Indonesia in April but was compelled to cancel that trip due to a major earthquake in Qinghai province. Vice President Xi Jinping advanced Chinese relations with a visit to Australia, New Zealand and Laos in mid-June. Chinese officials and authoritative media generally avoided taking sides in the deepening and increasingly violent internal crisis in Thailand. A variety of reporting and private disclosures by Vietnamese officials indicated more serious Sino-Vietnamese frictions over disputed claims in the South China Sea than previously indicated. Maneuvers by Chinese naval forces over disputed territories and related claims caught the attention of regional observers and the US, deepening concerns regarding Chinese objectives.
The China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), inaugurated on Jan. 1, marked the highlight of a quarter featuring otherwise slow Chinese-Southeast Asian interaction during the winter months. Premier Wen Jiabao did mention the trade accord in his report to the National People’s Congress in March, but official Chinese media accounts of interviews and commentary by Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi this quarter did not mention ASEAN or Southeast Asia in inventories of Chinese foreign policy priorities in 2010. In a visit receiving low-keyed and delayed treatment in official Chinese media, State Counselor Dai Bingguo, China’s senior foreign policy expert, traveled to ASEAN headquarters in Jakarta to give a speech in late January that highlighted the positive aspects of Chinese-ASEAN relations as well as important elements in China’s policy in Asia. Included in foreign assessments of China’s rising prominence in Southeast Asia was a hearing by a US congressional commission in February featuring views of two US administration officials and eight experts offering mixed conclusions. Chinese statements this quarter expressing strong differences with the US thus far have not shown much impact on Chinese relations with Southeast Asia.
The last quarter of 2009 featured high-level Chinese leadership diplomacy with individual Southeast Asian countries, ASEAN, and Asian regional multilateral groups. Salient meetings involved the ASEAN Plus 1 and Asian leadership summits in Thailand in October, a presidential visit to Malaysia and Singapore, including the APEC leaders meeting in Singapore in November, and high-level visits to Australia in late October, and Myanmar and Cambodia in December. Chinese official media commentary showed some concern over recently heightened US and Japanese diplomatic activism in the region. The South China Sea disputes and military tensions along the China-Myanmar border were much less prominent than earlier in the year.
Myanmar’s military offensive against armed militias of minority groups along the border with China disrupted the status quo that had prevailed along the frontier for the past two decades and complicated the extensive Chinese interests that have developed in the border region during this period. Frictions over territorial claims, fishing, and surveillance among China, Southeast Asian countries, and the U.S. over the South China Sea were less prominent than in recent quarters. China signed an investment agreement with ASEAN members marking the completion of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area, which is to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2010. Chinese commentary joined other regional media in highlighting, with some reservations, the prominence of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the more activist U.S. regional agenda at the ASEAN Regional Forum Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.
The highlight of China’s relations with Southeast Asia this quarter was continued maneuvering by China and Southeast Asian claimants over disputed territory and related economic claims in the South China Sea. Last quarter’s widely publicized face-off between the U.S. surveyor ship USNS Impeccable and harassing Chinese vessels was followed by incidents and commentary this quarter that underlined China’s view of an important U.S. role in challenging Chinese maritime claims in Southeast Asia. Chinese official statements and commentary and the actions by Chinese defense and security forces underlined a firm Chinese position in support of territorial and resource rights disputed by some Southeast neighbors and the U.S. Meanwhile, the pace of Chinese diplomacy picked up with economic support to Southeast Asian neighbors weathering the decline in trade and investment during the ongoing global economic recession along with visits and interaction with senior Southeast Asian leaders.
Southeast Asian and broader international attention focused in March on the confrontation between five Chinese government ships and the U.S. surveyor ship USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea near Hainan Island. U.S. and Chinese protests and related media commentary highlighted for Southeast Asian audiences a pattern of U.S. surveillance to learn more about China’s growing military presence and activities in the area, and a pattern of China’s unwillingness to tolerate such actions in areas where it claims rights that are disputed by the U.S. and other naval powers. The protests and commentary provided a vivid backdrop for China’s continued efforts to claim and defend territory in the South China Sea that is also claimed by Southeast Asian nations. Meanwhile, there was little good news on the economic front as China’s international trade and economic interchange with Southeast Asia continued to fall rapidly. Chinese diplomatic and political attention to the region remained low during the quarter.
Asian commentators who asserted that China and its neighbors could ride out the economic crisis in U.S. and Western financial markets appeared in retreat during the quarter as the impact of the financial turmoil and recession in America and Europe began to have a major effect on China and the region’s trade, manufacturing, currency values, and broader economic stability. The hope that China could sustain stable growth independent of the U.S. and Europe and thereby provide an engine of growth for export-oriented Southeast Asian countries was dented by Chinese trade figures that nosedived in November, especially Chinese imports, which fell by 18 percent. The financial crisis also dominated the discussion at the ASEM summit in October. Meanwhile, China continued to pursue infrastructure development projects with its neighbors to the south, resolved the land boundary dispute with Vietnam, and signed a free trade agreement with Singapore. Talk of a planned Chinese aircraft carrier caused some controversy, but on the whole assessments of China’s rise were notably more balanced than in the past.
Chinese relations with Southeast Asia were overshadowed for most of the quarter by Chinese leadership preoccupations with the 2008 Olympic Games and various crises involving toxic Chinese milk supplies, turmoil in U.S. and international financial markets, leadership uncertainty in North Korea, and the Russia-Georgia war. Although official Chinese media highlighted President Hu Jintao’s meetings with Southeast Asian and other world leaders at the Beijing Olympics, he and other top leaders did not travel to Southeast Asia except for the foreign minister’s attendance at the ASEAN meetings in Singapore in July. New troubles emerged with Vietnam, notably over oil exploration in the South China Sea. The recent pattern of Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean leaders meeting independent of ASEAN, despite their continued avowals of ASEAN’s “leadership” in East Asian regional matters, paused when Japanese officials announced the postponement of a planned summit among the three northeast Asian powers in September on account of the resignation of Japan’s prime minister.
Cyclone Nargis briefly put China in the international spotlight as Asian and world leaders sought help from Myanmar’s main international backer in order to persuade the junta to be more open in accepting international assistance. The massive Sichuan earthquake of May 12 abruptly shifted international focus to China’s exemplary relief efforts and smooth cooperation with international donors. Chinese leadership attention to Southeast Asia this quarter followed established lines. Consultations with Chinese officials showed some apparent slippage in China’s previous emphasis on ASEAN playing the leading role in Asian multilateral groups.
Preoccupied this quarter with key decisions on appointments, budgets, and government reorganization in the lead-up to the 11th National People’s Congress while facing serious disruption caused by February snowstorms and instability in Tibet during March, senior Chinese leaders had little time for travel to or substantial interaction with Southeast Asia. Chinese economic relations with the region moved forward, defense relations with Singapore and Indonesia advanced, and China and Vietnam seemed to calm disputes over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The highlight of this quarter was Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s active agenda in regional summits coinciding with the ASEAN Plus China, ASEAN Plus Three (with Japan and South Korea) and East Asia Summit meetings in Singapore in November. Chinese officials adhered to the line of the 17th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress emphasizing harmonious relations with Southeast Asian and other countries, but ran across some difficulties involving Myanmar, Vietnam, and climate change.
Chinese President and Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao toured Australian cities, engaged in summitry, and presided over the Chinese delegation at the Sydney APEC meeting. The events elicited positive publicity that underlined a good Chinese image and redounded to the benefit of Hu and the party leadership as they stressed stability and harmony at home and abroad in the lead up to the 17th Chinese Communist Party Congress in Beijing in October. Regional harmony and China’s international image were seriously challenged in late September when the military junta in Myanmar, which regards China as its major foreign supporter, cracked down violently on swelling anti-government demonstrations led by thousands of Buddhist monks. China has long worked to block UN and other international pressure against the military regime, but faced strong pressure led by U.S. President George W. Bush to support UN and other international efforts to stop the crackdown.
The major developments in this quarter included the Vietnamese president’s state visit to China in May and China’s military diplomacy at the Shangri-La Dialogue in early June. Assessments of China’s expansive engagement in Southeast Asia continue to show that while Beijing seeks to increase its influence in the region, it faces persistent challenges and limitations in translating its vision of a strategic partnership with Southeast Asia into a sustainable reality.
China advanced relations with Southeast Asia during ASEAN-related meetings in Cebu. China’s veto of a U.S.-backed UN Security Council draft resolution on Myanmar and Chinese military advances, including a controversial anti-satellite test, occasioned little apparent negative reaction among Southeast Asian governments.
Top Chinese leaders engaged Southeast Asian counterparts during a meeting in China celebrating 15 years of China-ASEAN ties, and during the APEC leaders gathering in Hanoi. The implications of China’s rising prominence for the changing regional order were reviewed in detail during a meeting in the United States of Chinese and international specialists, and in assessments by prominent scholars that went beyond headline-driven media accounts.
Chinese diplomacy this quarter focused on the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in July in which China played an important role regarding North Korea, Myanmar, and Japan. Chinese officials remain optimistic about Chinese-ASEAN relations as they celebrate the 15th anniversary of the China-ASEAN dialogue partnership. They reacted moderately to the military coup in Thailand, though they voiced strong objections to a successful U.S.-supported vote by the UN Security Council in September to have the Council examine the situation in Myanmar. There was little evidence of any change in China’s policy toward the region as a result of a work conference on Chinese foreign policy in Beijing during three days in August that featured remarks by top Chinese leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. Official Chinese reports on the conference appeared to support existing Chinese foreign policy priorities. U.S. and regional commentators continued to emphasize American anxiety over a perceived U.S. decline relative to China’s rise in regional affairs, although in-depth analysis by some specialists underscored significant Chinese limitations and continued U.S. strengths.
The major developments in this quarter included China’s military activism and greater emphasis on “soft power” diplomacy. Assessment of the high-level China-Southeast Asian interchange shows that while China’s influence is rising, Beijing continues to face several constraints and limitations in allaying Southeast Asian governments’ concern about its long-term intentions.
On April 13-15, Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Cao Gangchun visited Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam to enhance military cooperation between China and Southeast Asia. With more than 70 percent of Chinese imported oil coming through the Malacca Strait, China’s national security interests and stakes in Southeast Asia are rising. According to the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) White Paper on National Defense in 2004, the defense of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and “maritime rights and interests” were all classified as “national security goals.” China may be regarded as a rising continental power, but its vast coastline makes it an important maritime nation as well.
Cao’s visit reflected a low-key approach that endeavored to minimize regional concerns about rising Chinese military and other power, and to seek greater common ground with neighboring countries. Outwardly, Cao’s trip to Southeast Asia amounted to little more than observations of the various military camps and establishments in Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Cao’s dialogues with his counterparts were said to include clarifying growing U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia. There were no formal joint statements issued at the conclusion of the Southeast Asian leg of his trip.
This Chinese military activism comes at a time of greater U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia and is seen by some observers as a sign of a continuing Chinese interest in regional strategic adjustments and realignments, especially with countries that provide military access to the United States. Singapore’s close military relationship with the U.S., for example, gives U.S. warships a convenient entrance to the region. Meanwhile, Singapore’s training fields in Taiwan (not to mention Lee Hsien Loong’s visit to the island in 2004 before he was prime minister) are also a cause of concern for Beijing.
As for the Malacca Strait, the longstanding problem of piracy on the high seas is a looming concern for China. The disruption of China’s energy supplies would be a great detriment to its burgeoning economy, and Cao’s visit highlighted China’s willingness to step up its effort to cooperate with Singapore and Malaysia in patrolling the Malacca Strait. In Vietnam, Cao’s visit was said to include consideration of Cam Rahn Bay. The port facilities at Cam Rahn include two well-paved runways, a deep-water port, and a large storage site for petroleum. Due to its close proximity to Hainan Island, Cam Rahn Bay is strategically located to monitor and intercept communications in the southeastern coast of China. China complained for years over the Soviet Union’s use of the base against China’s interests, and presumably would oppose any U.S.-Vietnam military cooperation that would involve U.S. use of the base.
According to a report issued at the Aspen Institute Congressional Conference on U.S.-China Relations in April, China’s military modernization – especially the PLA Navy’s capabilities to secure “blue water” naval surface fleet – is a trend that will continue unabated and a reality with which countries in the region and the U.S. will have to come to terms. China continues to reassure its neighbors that its rising military and other power will not endanger their interests as Chinese officials remain well aware of the concern among many Southeast Asian governments regarding China’s long-term intentions.
The quarter saw much less of the high-level Chinese-Southeast Asian interchange that marked past periods and was notable in the lead-up to the East Asia Summit in December 2005. The visit of Myanmar’s prime minister to China in February was the highlight in bilateral exchanges. Beijing hosted a major international donors’ conference in January to assist China, Southeast Asia, and other Asian states affected by the avian flu epidemic.
The mid-winter Lunar New Year’s or “spring festival” celebrations usually are periods of relative inactivity for Chinese leaders. Senior Chinese leaders also were preoccupied this year with issues related to the new five-year development plan and significant changes in domestic laws and regulations considered at the annual National People’s Congress session in March. Chinese leaders had little to say about policy toward Southeast Asia at the Congress, which as usual featured detailed press conferences by the Chinese premier and Chinese foreign minister discussing salient policy issues. This seemed to reflect the absence of significant controversy in Chinese-Southeast Asian relations rather than any diminution of Chinese attention to the region.
Meanwhile, political turmoil in Thailand prompted the Chinese premier to postpone a visit to Bangkok scheduled for April, according to Thai media reports. China responded to the February landslide disaster in the Philippines with a pledge of $1 million in assistance, but avoided significant comment on President Arroyo’s declaration of a state of emergency and related political difficulties.
There was little official reaction in Southeast Asia to Chinese developments with implications for Southeast Asian security. These included the disclosure at the National People’s Congress that China’s defense budget would increase over 14 percent in 2006, and a concurrent report by the Chinese-controlled media in Hong Kong of a Chinese general and deputy director of the Science and Technology Commission of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Armament Department disclosing the Chinese military’s determination to build an aircraft carrier fleet. China welcomed Southeast Asian statements criticizing the Taiwan president over his controversial decision in February to end the island’s National Unification Council and Guidelines for political unification with China.
Chinese officials and official commentary this quarter continued the positive message of reassurance to Southeast Asian neighbors that China’s rising power was not a threat to the region but a source of multifaceted economic and trade related opportunities. The Chinese government’s decision in December to value upward by a significant margin the size of China’s economy was accompanied by a reassuring White Paper issued by the Information Office of the State Council that emphasized that China’s economic and other power sought a “benevolent” order at home and abroad that posed no danger to neighbors or others. This year’s White Paper contrasted markedly with the tougher language about Chinese determination and resolve in the face of threats to Chinese interests in Asia and elsewhere that appeared in a White Paper issued by the same office a year ago regarding China’s National Defense.
Backed by burgeoning trade and a dizzying array of meetings and contacts involving Chinese and Southeast Asian leaders, generally adroit Chinese diplomacy integrated Chinese activities and interests further with those of individual Southeast Asian states and with the growing range of regional multilateral organizations headed by ASEAN. The Chinese approach continued to be publicly praised and welcomed by the leaders of Southeast Asian governments and regional organizations. The result has been a steady stream of assessments by prominent pundits and specialists highlighting Southeast Asia as the leading area of Chinese gains in influence around its periphery in the post-Cold War period, and claiming that Chinese progress in Southeast Asia is a clear indicator that a China-centered order is emerging in Asia that reduces America’s longstanding preeminence in the region.
The capstone of the quarter’s activities in Chinese policy was the whirlwind of events surrounding the visit of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to Malaysia Dec. 11-15. Following the 11th ASEAN summit that took place in the Malaysian capital, Wen participated in the ninth ASEAN plus China meeting, the ninth ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan, and South Korea) meeting, and the inaugural East Asia Summit (EAS) that formally involved leaders of the ASEAN Plus Three (A+3) along with those from India, Australia, and New Zealand, with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin also participating. Wen held a bilateral summit with his Malaysian counterpart, and had formal meetings with most heads of the visiting delegations with the notable exception of Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro. Differences with Japan were behind China’s decision not to hold the meeting of Chinese, Japanese, and South Korea leaders that usually accompanies the ASEAN Plus Three summit.
The Chinese government had many reasons to be satisfied with the results of the meetings, but the sessions also illustrated some of the limitations and shortcomings in China’s actual influence in Southeast Asia after many years of growing trade, “win-win” diplomacy, and regional integration. Though not addressed often in formal meetings involving Chinese and Southeast Asian leaders, recent media and scholarly assessments and international conferences examining China-Southeast Asian relations have put some emphasis on the fact that the actual behavior of Southeast Asian governments shows that China’s rise and regional activism have been accompanied by varying degrees of wariness on the part of China’s neighbors. This, in combination with keen awareness of salient negative implications of Chinese development for Southeast Asian governments and their people, poses serious and continuing obstacles to the emergence of any sort of China-centered order in Southeast Asia.