China Policy Institute: Analysis


Southeast Asia

Why Fresh Thinking on the South China Sea is a Problem

Written by Kerry Brown.

Almost certainly one of the headaches that a new American president will have to start engaging with when they finally come into office in a year and a half’s time will be the complex claims and counter-claims over sovereignty and maritime borders in the South and East China Sea. Issues that once seemed remote and largely academic are now at the forefront of geopolitical worries, because what was once a sleepy stretch of water in amidst a group of developing countries with little trade or global political status has now become the precise opposite – prime territory linking the 21st century’s most dynamic, economically important countries. The stakes have risen stratospherically because of this. Continue reading “Why Fresh Thinking on the South China Sea is a Problem”

Vietnam-ASEAN Relations: A Retrospective

Written by Ramses Amer.

In 2015 Vietnam celebrates two major anniversaries. First, it is 40 years since war ended in Vietnam with the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975, which paved the way for the formal reunification of Vietnam the following year. Second, it is 20 years since Vietnam gained membership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on 28 July 1995.

 Vietnam’s relations with ASEAN and its five founding member states – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand – have seen major transformation over the past 40 years in particular during the period 1975-1995. In the context of the current situation with Vietnam fully integrated into the ASEAN framework for regional co-operation and with a Vietnamese as Secretary General of ASEAN it seems a long time ago when the relationship between Vietnam and ASEAN was characterised by animosity and deep differences.

The relationship 1975-1995

During the period of 1975-1995 Vietnam’s attitude towards ASEAN was inconsistent, with a lingering Vietnamese perception of the Association as being anti-Vietnamese. When Vietnam attempted to diversify its overall foreign relations out of the limited orbit of socialist countries in 1976 and 1977, efforts were made to improve and expand contacts with the ASEAN member states. However, Vietnam also continued to criticise the ASEAN countries, one accusation being that the Association was too closely linked to the USA. Vietnam’s policy of engagement was reinforced in 1978 as Vietnam sought to gather regional diplomatic support in its deepening conflict with Cambodia.

This process of rapprochement with the ASEAN member states came to an abrupt halt as a result of Vietnam’s military intervention in Cambodia in late December 1978. The Cambodian conflict 1979-1991 became the dominant issue in Vietnam-ASEAN relations. This led to a confrontation between Vietnam and ASEAN which centred on the situation in Cambodia, with ASEAN actively opposing Vietnam’s presence in Cambodia both regionally and internationally. The second half of the 1980s saw a gradual improvement of relations between Vietnam and individual ASEAN member states. However, full normalisation of relations between Vietnam and ASEAN was only achieved following the formal settlement of the Cambodian conflict in October 1991.

With the Cambodian conflict removed from the agenda, relations between Vietnam and ASEAN were allowed to flourish. This can be seen from Vietnam’s gradual integration into the existing regional framework in Southeast Asia. Vietnam acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) in 1992. It became a founding member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) which held its first official meeting in 1994. Vietnam was admitted as a full member of ASEAN on 28 July 1995. This displayed a remarkable shift in relations between Vietnam and ASEAN during a period of 20 years.

Missed opportunity?

Was there a missed opportunity back in the 1970s? Was the potential of rapprochement fully explored during the period 1975 to 1978? Once the Cambodian conflict came to dominate the relationship from early 1979 further rapprochement was not possible, but could more have been achieved before the emergence of the Cambodian conflict? In order to assess this issue it is necessary to take into account the specific conditions that prevailed and it is not correct to judge the developments through the lenses of the situation that prevailed in the 1990s or today.

First, the importance of ideology in inter-state relations was of high relevance in the 1970s, but of much less relevance after the end of the Cold War. Thus, this ideological factor was detrimental to an enhanced rapprochement between Vietnam and ASEAN in the period 1975-1978. Second, the legacy of the Vietnam War and the perception of ASEAN as being too closely linked to the USA did negatively affect its relations with ASEAN in the 1970s, but it was of less or no relevance in the 1990s. Third, the international status of ASEAN was much less developed and prominent in the 1970s as compared to the early 1990s when ASEAN had emerged as an important actor through its influential role in the international diplomacy of the Cambodian conflict. Fourth, in the 1970s member-states of ASEAN had yet to emerge as fast growing economies, while in the 1990s several of them went through a process of fast economic growth and development.

Thus, as seen from Vietnam’s perspective ASEAN and its individual member-states were not perceived to be able to assist Vietnam in its economic development in the 1970s. Evidently, Vietnam’s perception of ASEAN had changed by the early 1990s and consequently seeking closer ties and eventually membership became foreign policy priorities for Vietnam. Thus, the rapprochement during the period 1975-1978 went as far as it was possible in the context that prevailed during that period.

Main achievement at 20 years of membership

It is in the field of conflict management that the main achievement of Vietnam’s regional integration can be seen. Vietnam has made considerable progress in such efforts since it became a member of the Association in 1995. The progress has certainly been facilitated by Vietnam’s membership because overall relations have been further strengthened with its fellow ASEAN members. Improved relations may also help explain why the disputes have become more manageableas well aswhy a number of them have been resolved either through joint development schemes or through formal delimitation agreements. Thus, it can be argued that the active and committed policy of peaceful management of border disputes implemented by the Vietnamese government is paying dividends. The progress achieved indicates that several of Vietnam’s neighbours are pursuing similar policies.

The progress made in managing its border and maritime issues between Vietnam and other member-states of ASEAN demonstrate that the TAC principle of peaceful management of disputes is being implemented in Vietnam’s relations and its ASEAN neighbours. This is another indication of Vietnam’s commitment to and continued integration into the regional framework of collaboration and integration in Southeast Asia.

This overall positive trend in the management of Vietnam’s border disputes contributes to the ASEAN goal to promote peace and security in Southeast Asia. It is also positively contributing to improving inter-state relations between the member-states of ASEAN. It can even be argued that the positive developments relating to the management of Vietnam’s border disputes have contributed to increase the credibility of ASEAN’s approach to conflict management as well as to strengthen it.

Ramses Amer is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Security & Development Policy in Stockholm, Sweden and previously a Senior Research Fellow at Stockholm University. Image Credit: CC by U.S. Department of State/Flickr

Hong Kong’s Window on China, Mahathir, and Democratic Change

Written by William Case.

We know much about what Southeast Asia’s leaders think of China. They are divided in their outlooks, but we can reasonably group them. Among those in closest proximity to China, some leaders have come to resent what they see as the country’s imperiousness, manifest in the skewed terms of its infrastructural projects and energy deals, the rapacity of its claims in the South China Sea, and the pugnacity of its frontier traders and migrant retailers. By contrast, other leaders value their territorial nearness, welcoming Chinese investment in rail lines, ports, dams, and mines. In addition, they may find refuge in the penumbra of China’s authoritarian rule, whether they too operate Communist parties, a rare military government, or a hybrid form of personal dictatorship. Further away from China’s borders, leaders in Southeast usually grow more detached. But even here, we sometimes find leaders who are effusive, hailing China as a boon for the region, a driver of economic advance, and a barrier to US interference. One such opinion leader is Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister of Malaysia.

We also know much about what, in turn, China’s leaders think of their counterparts in Southeast Asia. Those whom it regards as ingrates or irritants, it openly berates as unworthy of national office. But for those whom it views as forthcoming, it may even designate their country as a “comprehensive strategic partner.” On this count, we see how China has returned Mahathir’s good will. As President Xi Jinpeng journeyed to the APEC meeting in 2013, he stopped over in Kuala Lumpur to engage Najib Razak, currently Malaysia’s prime minister. But he paid a call on Mahathir too. And in reciprocating, an awestruck Mahathir proposed that a Zheng He Institute be set up—contrasting starkly with the bitterness he registers toward Malaysia’s citizens of Chinese ancestry, despite their co-ethnicity with Xi and the admiral.

But apart from Xi, what might more ordinary people in China think of Mahathir and Malaysia? At this level, we know much less about attitudes toward Southeast Asia’s leaders. But recently, here in Hong Kong, we were given a glimpse.

Mahathir still holds great sway in Malaysia. He has also discovered a calling as a professional speaker overseas. And in October last year, he came to Hong Kong to address an afternoon gathering of “pro-establishment” political figures and business elites. For the purpose, a large function room was requisitioned in the Wanchai Convention Centre. And its many tables were filled with guests, notwithstanding the high price of tickets and the commonness of the lunch. I went too, relishing this rare chance to see Tun. But what, I wondered, could have been the draw for local Hong Kongers? Few seemed to know very much about Malaysia. But they knew enough that they admired the firm managerial hand that during his long tenure, Tun had been famous for wielding.

At the time of Mahathir’s visit, Hong Kong was well into the second month of its Occupy Central movement. Initially planned by veteran “pan-democrat” activists, as they are called, street action was energized now by student protesters. And as they gained momentum, swelling in numbers and combativeness, pro-establishment figures grew steamed. Hence, their motivation for seeking out Tun.

Mahathir began by reacquainting his audience with his anti-Western sentiments, which seemed even to have intensified alongside his mounting affections for China. “The West colonized we Malaysians for a hundred years”, he acidly recalled. “China never colonized us. Of course, they could still do so. For they have a fifth column”—again intimating his distrust of Malaysia’s Chinese, though few Hong Kongers in the audience detected this. Rather, they sat enraptured as Mahathir went on to characterize Chinese outside Malaysia as beneficent and nobly intentioned, their country’s economic expansion uplifting all of East Asia. Personally, though, I was less taken with this vintage Mahathirism that the stamina with which it was delivered. Mahathir will soon turn 90. Yet he held the floor for an hour, without notes or nary a stumble. And then he took questions.

Local notables in attendance were quick to queue at the mike. A member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and a delegate to China’s National People’s Congress implored Mahathir, “Tun, can you give us some of your precious advice [about how to deal with the student protesters]?” Mahathir reassured her that they were easily dismissed: as they represent “just a small number, they are not genuinely fighting for democracy.” A spokesman for the anti-Occupy Alliance for Peace and Democracy, doubling as leader of the Silent Majority of Hong Kong, asked similarly how, in his day, Mahathir would have handled the protesters, “who (the spokesman’s voice rising) have blocked our streets and businesses for 28 days?!” Mahathir pursed his lips, then sagely responded, “the best way to handle it is to handle it before the occupying”—thereby preventing a majority ever from forming. But Mahathir then gave more measured counsel than he himself ever took while in power: “beating them is not the solution, of course. [For if you do,] you can be sure that CNN, MNBC, and all the rest will be there”, drawing guffaws from the audience. Better to wait them out, he continued, for “over time they will get tired and other people will turn against them”—which turned out to be quite true. And then, beaming warmly, Mahathir stood back from the lectern, made his way to his table, and took his place alongside Siti Hasmah. He was thunderously applauded.

At my own table, guests were mostly from Hong Kong. But a few hailed from the mainland and even Malaysia. And fired by Mahathir’s insights, they continued discussion, quavering with indignation over Occupy Central. A deceptively petite local woman on my left, a business executive, hissed that what the students needed was “a slap. They are immature and misled.” “But who is misleading them?”, I asked. “Foreign interference. You know who—the US”, she nearly spat. She was evidently more open to Mahathir’s intervention. Sensing this, another guest, a visiting businessman from Malaysia, told us of his taxi ride to the convention center. Darkening with anger, he recounted his having been made to detour by the students. What was more, he had observed them daring to stop police, opening the boots of squad cars, and searching for canisters of tear gas. “I’d like to bring the Malaysian police in here”, he growled. “They’d teach these kids something.” Others at my table nodded in vigorous agreement. “And what do you think?”, I was finally asked. Knowing that no good could come from sharing my views, I replied, “I’ve just made new friends here. I need to learn more before making any judgment.” But though they didn’t learn much from me, I learned much about how they felt about Mahathir. In this part of China, at least, a Malaysian leader had plainly found favor with ordinary Chinese.

William Case is a professor of politics at City University of Hong Kong, Department of Asian and International Studies. Image credit: CC by M Afif/Flickr. 

China and water security in Asia

In 2011 Anatol Lieven wrote that the ‘greatest source of long-term danger to Pakistan’ was dependence on the river Indus and climate change in general. Lieven was in no doubt that water security was a far greater than that of Islamic extremism. The politics of water, one of the major aspects of water security, are complex, far reaching and highly conflictual across Asia. Many issues are tied to China because so many of South and South East Asia’s major rivers originate in the Tibetan Highlands of China. Upstream irrigation projects, hydroelectric and damming schemes and industrial pollution have major implications on those downstream, whether that be from China to India, India to Pakistan, or within countries (such as between Punjab and Sindh in Pakistan or conflicts over the River Cauvery in Southern India).

For China, while aware that its actions have the potential to cause conflicts with downstream neighbours, water is a crucial domestic issue in a country where floods and droughts have been the bane of farmers’ lives for centuries. As the China modernizes, huge efforts have been invested in infrastructure like the Three Gorges Dam and North-South Water Transfer to mitigate the effects of flooding, increase water supply to the arid north and generate electricity to feed the country’s great urbanization project.

In short, water security affects the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people in Asia and control and use of water resources are a vitally important domestic issue with international ramifications.

Reflecting the importance of water security in Asia and the centrality of China to the region’s resources, the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies (IAPS) and the China Policy Institute (CPI) have organised this special issue as part of an ongoing commitment to exploring the links and conflicts between China and its downstream neighbours. IAPS and the CPI are collectively organising a new interdisciplinary research strand over the next few months to probe the domestic and international ramifications of this issue across Asia. The collection of posts by renowned specialists from around the world are a valuable starting point. The line-up includes:

Christine E. Boyle (Portland State University)
Katherine Morton (Australian National University)
Sam Geall (University of Sussex)
Darrin Magee (Hobart and William Smith Colleges)
Pichamon Yeophantong (Princeton University)
Uttam Kumar Sinha (IDSA),
Robert Wirsing (Georgetown)

IAPS and the CPI will hold an invitation only workshop in the new year. Interested academics and other professionals working on water security in Asia are welcome to contact Dr Jonathan Sullivan with EOI.

Image credit: CC by runner PL/Flickr

Abe’s Southeast Asian Diplomacy: Intersection of the South and East China Sea disputes

By Andrew Chubb.

Between January 10 and 19 this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida paid formal bilateral visits to the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia: seven countries in the space of 10 days. The diplomatic blitz illustrates the intersection of the East and South China Sea disputes, and the impetus this has given to Japan’s policy of deepening regional engagement since the early 2000s.

Six of Abe and Kishida’s seven destination countries were ASEAN member states, the exception being Australia, and three of them were parties to the South China Sea disputes. In fact, Taiwan aside, the only South China Sea claimant state Japan’s leaders did not visit was Malaysia, which continues to quietly extract hydrocarbons and develop tourism in the disputed area with little hindrance, thanks to its steadfast determination to avoid antagonizing Beijing.

Abe had actually wanted Washington to be his first destination after taking office, in line with his publicly stated intention to strengthen ties with the US, but Barack Obama was too busy to host a January summit. The hasty arrangement of Abe’s jaunt through Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia — he set out on January 16, only nine days after being told Obama’s schedule was full — might suggest receptiveness to Japan’s advances in major ASEAN capitals.

Not surprisingly, the Philippines and Vietnam were the most openly enthusiastic about the Japanese leaders’ visits. Kishida arrived in Manila on January 9, exactly one month after Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told the Western media the Philippines would “very much” welcome a rearmed Japan free from pacifist constitutional constraints. This time Del Rosario took the opportunity to denounce the PRC’s South China Sea policy in probably the strongest terms yet seen from a serving minister, telling reporters after the meeting that the China was engaging in “very threatening” behaviour: “We do have this threat and this threat is shared by many countries not just by Japan.”

If the rhetoric sounded highly-strung, it was almost matched by the two countries’ actual actions. Del Rosario said Kishida had brought with him an offer of 10 brand-new patrol boats for the Philippines Coast Guard, later confirmed to be supplied under Japan’s Official Development Aid program. To put that in context, the Philippines Coast Guard only has 15 ships currently in service, plus 5 on order from France, so Japan is single-handedly increasing the PCG’s ship numbers by more than 30%.

The patrol boat deal, which was flagged last year year by Japanese embassy staff in Manila, is reportedly in addition to a separate grant for  two refurbished older ships. Importantly, these would be able to stay at sea for weeks at a time, a capability that would have helped during last year’s Scarborough Shoal incident, when China’s maritime surveillance and fisheries ships outlasted their Filipino counterparts to end up in control of the disputed atoll.

Six days after Kishida and del Rosario’s meeting, Abe’s met with Vietnam’s trinity of leaders in Hanoi — Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, and President Truong Tan Sang — and the two sides reaffirmed the “strategic partnership” in place since since 2009. The Vietnamese PM called the visit a milestone and thanked Japan for its ongoing development aid dispensations, according to Xinhua, while Abe said Vietnam and Japan must “play a more active role” in regional peace and security and deepen ties to meet “challenging developments” in the Asia-Pacific.

It has since been reported that the Japanese government will provide training for Vietnamese maritime law enforcement personnel from Japan’s experienced and technologically advanced coast guard, as part of a ¥2.5 billion budget allocation for security cooperation with Southeast Asian countries.

Kishida also managed to discuss the South China Sea issue with Brunei’s foreign minister, reached agreement on a deepened “strategic partnership” with Indonesia, and announced further major economic initiatives in the Philippines. Earlier in the month Japan had sent Finance Minister Taro Aso to Myanmar to announce the cancelling or restructuring of nearly $5 billion of Burma’s debt, and numerous economic development projects.

Abe chose Jakarta as the location for his first major foreign policy speech, although it was never delivered due to Abe rushing home to deal with the Algerian hostage crisis. It was published nonetheless on the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. Entitled “The Bounty of the Open Seas”, it expounded on Abe’s determination to “expand the horizons of Japanese diplomacy”, support for the US strategic pivot, and intention to strengthen ties with “maritime Asia”. Ten days later, in a low-key exchange, the Commander of the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force visited President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at his office in Jakarta.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was reticent on all this, with spokesman Hong Lei offering only “we have noticed relevant reports” when asked [ZH] about Abe’s trip. But Japan’s activities was the subject of a range of media discussion in China. The People’s Daily’s foreign affairs commentator [ZH] struck a concerned tone regarding what it called a “values-diplomacy offensive” by Japan. This was nothing less than “an attempt to drag Southeast Asian countries into the encirclement of China, the commentary noted, but “there is absolutely no market in Southeast Asia for this kind of fantasy.”

A more sanguine Global Times editorial declared: “If Abe’s trip to Southeast Asia is aimed at ‘containing China,’ he can only reduce Japan’s role on the political stage of Asia. The trip will only be a show without substantive content. Maybe Abe’s cabinet is not so stupid.” Writing in the same publication, PLA pundit Dai Xu as usual took the gloomiest view of developments, especially Japan’s cultivation of closer ties with Myanmar, which until 2011 had been a strong ally of the People’s Republic. Japan, Colonel Dai wrote, was engaging in “a vicious economic war which aims to drive out Chinese companies, control Myanmar’s economy, and finally, cut off China’s energy passageway to the Indian Ocean.”

But the effort to build closer economic ties with Southeast Asia was not a shift in strategy for Japan, which has been reducing its relative reliance on China for years; the PRC’s share of Japan’s overall trade shrank from 18.4% in 2000 to 11.2% in 2011. The economic punishment meted out to both Japanese and Philippine businesses during their respective standoffs over the Diaoyu Islands and Scarborough Shoal last year simply provides extra motivation for Japan and the South China Sea claimant states to attempt to diversify their economic links. The PRC’s economic diplomacy has certainly caught the attention of the Vietnamese government, whose top trading partner is China. In November, Deputy Foreign Minister Pham Quang Binh told Bloomberg, “Economic force should not be applied in the case of settlement of territorial disputes,” saying he had “observed” the Diaoyu Islands issue and its impact on Sino-Japanese trade relations.

While China’s political and economic leverage in Southeast Asia has become a subject of concern for some commentators on regional politics, the apparent success of Kishida and Abe’s diplomatic overtures was a timely reminder of Japan’s own importance to ASEAN countries. While China was ASEAN’s number one trading partner with 11.7% of the bloc’s total trade in 2011, Japan was just 0.3% behind with 11.4%, according to official statistics. Japan remains Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines’ top trading partner, Vietnam’s leading foreign investor, and a major source of cheap capital via its Official Development Aid program.

Japan also has the fifth-largest defense budget in the world, despite its “pacifist” constitution, and that strategic heft is looking increasingly valuable to China’s co-claimants in the South China Sea. Japan, for its part, is seeking to spread its strategic burden through direct assistance to China’s principal rivals there, Vietnam and the Philippines. This trend looks set to increase over the coming years as Japan re-enters the weapons export industry.

In his “Democratic Security Diamond” article published on December 27, the day after he took office, Abe explicitly warned of the South China Sea becoming “Lake Beijing”, and argued that Japan’s continued resistance to China’s pressure over the East China Sea’s disputed islands was crucial to preventing this possibility. The Japanese government’s recent actions show how it also views Southeast Asian claimants’ continued resistance to Chinese pressure over the disputed South China Sea islands as crucial to Japan’s own security.

Andrew Chubb is a PhD Candidate at the University of Western Australia and owner of the excellent blog, South Sea Conversations. Follow him on Twitter @zhubochubo

Calming Influence

South China SeaChina should understand the regional worries about its rise that lie behind America’s strategy of engagement with Asia, and seek to allay those fears – without equivocation, Steve Tsang says.

The United States’ quick-fire diplomatic double – the announcement of its intention to base 2,500 marines in northern Australia, followed by Hillary Rodham Clinton’s high-profile visit last week to Myanmar – has unnerved the Chinese leadership, and rightly so.

Yet US actions are a far cry from acts of coldwar aggression designed to check China’s rise, as the overtly nationalistic voices in Beijing were typically swift to claim.

Combined, they represent an explicit display of the growing unease felt across Asia and Australasia at China’s increasing assertiveness towards the territorial disputes that continue to unsettle the region. And they are indicative of the mounting pressure on the US to reassure its allies that it is prepared to fulfil its treaty obligations and is committed to pre-empt an attempt by any power to attain the status of regional hegemon.

The Obama administration, up until now, has been particularly willing to accommodate the sensitivities of China’s leaders. Its switch to a more robust approach is testament to the darkening mood that is sweeping across the region as the tone with which Beijing, through its unofficial spokesmen, addresses the territorial disputes in the South China Sea becomes progressively domineering.

China has not made any formal claim that all the waters north of the infamous nine-dotted line in the South China Sea are part of its sovereign territory or even of core national interest. But there exists aggression by proxy. Academics and senior Chinese military officers free from sensitive positions of command or policymaking are permitted to be strident, while the government remains able to deny it has ever made a territorial claim.

However delicately packaged, this risky double game alarms China’s southern neighbours, who lack the power to stand up to China even if they could act in concert.

Even Australia, which has forged one of the closest mutually beneficial economic relationships with China, shares the region’s anxiety. Although loath to admit it publicly, Australia views the planned deployment of US marines to Darwin as reassurance that Uncle Sam is listening and prepared to act.

Myanmar’s leaders have been less shy in registering their concern. Clinton hasn’t exactly emptied a bag of concessionary goodies on the table but the fact that she received such a positive reception reflects not so much the astuteness of US foreign policy, but Myanmar’s fear over China’s monopolistic influence. Now that Myanmar sees, as other Southeast Asian states have seen, a more confident China seeking dominance, it is intent on decoupling itself from Beijing lest it morph into a modern version of a vassal state.

If the Chinese government is seriously concerned about this shift in US policy and wants to undermine America’s regional standing, it can do so – but not with hyperbolic protestations of cold-war containment.

The most effective way for China to remove the raison d’être for the US strategy is to alleviate the anxiety its neighbours harbour towards its own rise. This centres on the need for China to tame its strident nationalists and speak with one reasoned diplomatic voice in order to regain fading regional trust.

The Chinese government reaction to Clinton’s Myanmar visit was again a tale of conflicting statements. The Chinese foreign ministry at first said it welcomed signs of co-operation between the US and Myanmar, yet, only days before, the Chinese military had held a high-level reception for members of Myanmar’s armed forces. The foreign ministry then called on the US to lift the sanctions it has long imposed on Myanmar. The former action was clearly to encourage Myanmar’s military to keep President Thein Sein on a tight rein; the latter to remind Myanmar that the US still insists on sanctions. This inconsistency is more likely to remind Myanmar of the need to reach out to the US than to de-incentivise it.

If members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations believe in the benign intentions of China, support for the rhetorical “return” of the US to Southeast Asia would soon dissipate and it may also make citizens of Darwin question their government’s decision to allow US marines to train on their home turf.

Should this happen, the US would not find Singapore and, crucially, Vietnam so keen to welcome its naval forces to their ports. Vietnam’s decision earlier this year to host the return of a US naval visit at Cam Ranh Bay is perhaps the clearest example yet of Vietnamese discomfort at Chinese intentions.

If China remains committed to a peaceful rise, recent developments need not mark the start of a second cold war.

China’s rise cannot be derailed by its neighbours. But any efforts by China to reassure its neighbours that its intentions are genuinely benign, for example by leaving issues of sovereignty aside and taking the initiative to jointly develop energy resources in the South China Sea for the benefit of the whole region, would be a hugely positive start.

Steve Tsang is director of the China Policy Institute and professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham


Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

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