Twenty years after China and Southeast Asian nations forged official links, fears are growing that Beijing’s rising military and economic clout is dividing the region.
China and the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam—are now implementing an agreement to create the world’s most populated free trade area of nearly two billion people.
But some experts caution that Beijing is moving to create a new bloc combining the southern Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi with the neighboring mainland Southeast Asian states Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.
These states are situated along Southeast Asia’s main artery, the Mekong River, and billions of dollars are being poured into the so-called Greater Mekong Sub-region for infrastructure development, including an extensive network of roads and railways that will solidify links between the states and China.
The mainland states are being “divided” from the maritime ASEAN members—Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, and the Philippines—by new physical infrastructure connections, new economic interactions and new intimate political and military engagements with China, says an Australian scholar who has been tracking Chinese-Southeast Asian historical links.
“These countries are, together with China, forming a new bloc, which in effect divides ASEAN,” said Geoff Wade, a historian at the Nalanda Sriwijaya Center of Singapore’s Institute for Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS).
“The Greater Mekong Sub-region has thereby moved steadily from ‘sub-region' towards ‘region’ and we are seeing the cracks which will almost inevitably produce a permanently-divided ASEAN,” he said in a report.
Asian Development Bank
Development of the Greater Mekong Sub-region was initiated two decades ago by the Asian Development Bank and it continues to be promoted by the Manila-based bank through intense economic engagement with China.
ADB projects such as a U.S. $150 million dollar loan to China to develop three cities in Guangxi to serve as gateways to Vietnam and other Greater Mekong Sub-region countries, and to convert these corridors into full-fledged economic corridors are “tying China ever closer to the mainland states,” Wade noted.
Already, China has strengthened control of the agrarian economies of Southeast Asia.
It has built four dams on the upper part of the Mekong River, is investing in three dam projects in Laos and another one in Cambodia and has plans for a further 12 dams along the river—providing it with “a handle to control the major lifeline of the downstream countries.”
However, despite its dominant position, China refuses to sit on the body that monitors the Mekong River, which ran very dry in the first half of 2010.
Aside from transport links, China is also promoting electricity grids and energy pipelines among the Southeast Asian mainland states that will greatly reduce its transport reliance on the Straits of Malacca, the narrow but busy waterway straddling Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.
Burma, Cambodia and Laos are already virtual “client” states of China while Vietnam and Thailand ”are increasingly tied—and in some ways beholden—to the economic behemoth to the north,” Wade said.
And given their Mekong water dependence, and increasing infrastructural linkages, growing trade and investment ties, and burgeoning political, and military links with China, “the likelihood is minimal that these countries will see their future lying in further integration with the maritime ASEAN states rather than with China.”
How is ASEAN as a whole reacting to this development?
ASEAN foreign ministers put on a bold front this week, making an unprecedented one-day mostly road trip to China in a bid to drive home their point that transport links will indeed boost regional integration.
The journey was to underline ASEAN’s own master plan to build physical, institutional and people-to-people “connectivity” that was approved late last year.
The ministers traveled from Chiang Rai on the Thai side before crossing the Mekong River by barge at Chiang Khong over to Huay Xai in Laos. They continued by bus to Luang Namtha, also in Laos and northwards to Jinghong in China, from where they flew to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province.
“Multi-modal connectivity is extremely critical for ASEAN integration and community building,” said ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, who joined the journey.
“We are now embarking on land transport. Sea and air transports are also being developed with equal sense of urgency.”
Challenges to ASEAN
The Thai government said in a statement that the trip would allow ministers to personally evaluate and exchange views on opportunities for economic cooperation as well as “challenges that may arise from ASEAN connectivity.”
Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo believes the ASEAN links will eventually bring regional and global benefits.
“Everywhere there is a link, conditions change, opportunities abound, and people once backward and impoverished will be part of a larger economy. That’s what we are trying to do in the ASEAN community,” he told the Singapore Straits Times newspaper.
Some believe that the firm links between mainland Southeast Asia and China could also be a key factor for the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement launched last year to eliminate barriers to investment and tariffs on 90 percent of products.
ASEAN-China trade has exploded from about U.S. $40 billion dollars in 2000 to about U.S. $300 billion dollars at present.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao wants the trade, which is growing by 25 to 30 percent a year, to jump to U.S. $500 billion by 2020, Surin said in a tweet during the trip.
China is ASEAN’s biggest trading partner while ASEAN is China’s fourth.
“At the 20th anniversary of our dialogue, China-ASEAN relations are at a historic point,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, according to Xinhua news agency. “We will continue to move forward.”
As China beefs up links with mainland Southeast Asia, foreign powers and even countries such as Vietnam harbor suspicions over Beijing’s military ambitions.
The suspicions were triggered largely after China’s new found political assertiveness as its neighbors pressed their claims to potentially oil-rich territories in the South China Sea and East China Sea.
China’s assertive stances “have raised particular concerns across the region,” said a report issued following a U.S.-Japan-ASEAN trilateral strategic dialogue in Hawaii earlier this month.
“There is uncertainty about whether recent Chinese actions represent a tactical misstep and readjustment or the beginning of a secular trend toward more assertiveness vis-a-vis smaller states in Asia,” according to a key finding of the conference, the report said.