Differences helping China to extend its ‘sphere of influence’ – Stratfor
China is taking advantage of the lack of unity among the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to extend its power in the region, a visiting geopolitical expert said on Monday.
Rodger Baker, East Asia and Pacific Vice President of Stratfor Global Intelligence, described the regional political situation in a conversation with reporters and editors of The Manila Times. “China is not pursuing territorial objectives as much as it is seeking to extend its ‘sphere of influence,’” Baker said. Part of the way it is doing that, Baker explained, is by making the most of the inability of the Asean to take a collective position with regards to China’s actions in the South China Sea.
“Overall, China is the biggest trade partner of the Asean, accounting for something like 39 percent of the group’s imports,” Baker said. “It has an economic relationship with every one of the ten Asean countries, but each is a little different.” These differences help to keep the bloc from taking a united stand. “For countries like Cambodia or Myanmar, the South China Sea is not an issue. So asking them to put their economic relationship with China at risk by supporting a position that doesn’t have any tangible benefit to them is a really tough sell.”
Part of the difficulty in achieving Asean unity lies in its history, according to Baker.
“The Asean, which was originally five nations, was formed as a barrier against Communism. At that time, there was a clear-cut difference in economic systems; countries either belonged to this system or the other. That’s no longer the case —that clear division has disappeared,” Baker explained.
As a result, economic and to some degree political aims have become more complex and much more individualistic, Baker suggested. “We can take a look at what happened before 1996-1997,” he said. “The Asean was this new power, and seen as being on its way to becoming something big. And then the crisis [the Asian financial crisis]hit, and everything sort of went to pieces; countries started looking out for themselves, and we started seeing a lot more competition, a lot more nationalistic attitudes among them.”
Writing for Yale Global in the wake of the disappointing Asean regional meeting this past August, author Bertil Lintner pointed out an aspect of the Asean group that might explain the lack of unity described by Baker. “Asean functions on two cardinal principles: consensus and non-interference in member states’ internal affairs,” Lindner wrote. “In effect, Asean finds it impossible to take any unified stand in regional conflicts—or address bilateral issues between its various members.” As economic ties with China are almost entirely ‘internal affairs’ from the individual member-nations’ points of view, anything that would impact them would technically be off-limits; a point that members such as Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia who rely more heavily than the others on Chinese trade and investment would undoubtedly remain firm on.
While China is so far doing a very good job of using the economic opportunities the Southeast Asian region offers—Baker describes it as one of the three regions, along with East Africa and Northern Latin America, that Stratfor sees as currently the most promising growth areas in the world—to bolster its geopolitical influence, it does run the risk of overplaying it, according to Baker.
“We’ve seen some evidence of a kind of nationalistic push-back against Chinese economic influence,” he said, citing some changes in investment rules and the cancellation of a massive Chinese-funded dam project in Myanmar as examples. So even though Asean cooperation may be “a very long way off,” as Baker put it, there may be encouraging signs that Asean members’ own self-interests might keep Chinese influence from becoming uncomfortably strong. “It seems that countries which have relied heavily on Chinese investment reach a point where they suddenly fear being economically dominated, and they tighten up,” he explained.
Baker also pointed out another critical aspect of the Chinese economy that serves to limit just how far it can push its geopolitical objectives. “There are about 400 million Chinese who are benefiting from the country’s economic growth,” he said.
“But that means there are about 900 million who are not. That’s a very serious concern for the government, so developing the country’s domestic economy is the main priority.”
That suggests that any intentional move that might put that objective in jeopardy is not in China’s plans; Baker himself assesses the chances of a wider, more aggressive conflict in the South China Sea as “low.” “China is simply not going to risk a serious escalation for the sake of some indefensible rocks,” he concluded.
Rodger Baker will be one of the expert speakers at The Manila Times Business Forum today to be held from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Dusit Thani hotel in Makati.