ASEAN still the critical catalyst for China’s future

December 4, 2016

ASEAN still the critical catalyst for China’s future

by Kishore Mahbubani, Dean, Lee Kuan Yew School@NUS

Image result for ASEAN

China is making some serious strategic mistakes in its dealings with ASEAN. It is sacrificing its long-term interests in favour of short-term objectives and its global interests in favour of regional concerns. And in the process, it is undermining a critical catalyst to its peaceful rise.

China’s peaceful emergence as the number two power in the world is a modern geopolitical miracle. In 1980 its share of global GDP in purchasing power parity terms, was 2 per cent—far less than the 22 per cent the US accounted for. By 2014, China’s share had overtaken the United States. Normally such great-power transitions are accompanied by competition and conflict. Instead, China emerged peacefully. Why?


Many factors were responsible. Deng Xiaoping’s wise geopolitical advice to ‘hide and bide’ China’s strength was a key factor. He also called on the Chinese ‘to swallow bitter humiliation’. This they did. But it is impossible to swallow bitter humiliation forever. It was inevitable that China would eventually lose its patience and lash out against perceived maritime provocations by Japan and ASEAN. We can only hope that these recent outbursts have had a cathartic and calming effect on the national psyche.

Image result for ASEAN Summit in Laos

Yet China’s actions with ASEAN show that the anger has not abated. It is commonly believed that Chinese pressure led Cambodia to veto the ASEAN joint communique on the South China Sea in 2012. Similarly, China likely persuaded Cambodia, Laos and Thailand to walk away from the agreed ASEAN statement, later indiscreetly leaked by Malaysia.

China is one of the more rational geopolitical actors today. Unlike the United States and Russia, China’s geopolitical actions are not commonly driven by emotional paroxysms. Yet China’s atypical emotional defence of the infamous ‘nine-dash line’ in the South China Sea goes against its larger global interests.

Image result for Hun Sen at ASEAN Summit in Laos

China is now the world’s number one trading power and has been since 2014. It is also the world’s biggest exporter of manufactured goods. Chinese toothbrushes and detergents arrive safely on African and Latin American shores because the world’s oceans are open to freedom of navigation and safe for commercial shipping. The US Navy is inadvertently doing the Chinese economy a big favour by keeping international sea lanes open. This has facilitated the near quadrupling of China’s global trade from US$600 billion in 2004 to US$2.2 trillion in 2015.

Yet in the same decade, when its reliance on freedom of navigation in the world’s oceans increased, China prioritised regional interests ahead of its global interests. The nine-dash line, which had remained dormant for decades, suddenly surfaced in the Chinese public consciousness and the Chinese media began to defend it passionately.

It is against Chinese interests to convert any international waterway into an internal lake. This is why Wei Zongyou of Fudan University has wisely advised that: ‘[t]o avoid a possible maritime trap that will not only be detrimental to China’s true national interests, but also negatively affect many other countries, China, as a major claimant, should think longer term and take steps to de-escalate the tension’.

The Chinese government has not decided to break up ASEAN. Indeed, it wants to strengthen ASEAN. Yet its actions have weakened ASEAN, a dangerous thing to do to an organisation that is inherently fragile—perhaps as fragile as a Ming vase.

More dangerously, China began to undermine ASEAN’s unity. In theory, China can afford to alienate the ten relatively weak ASEAN member states. In practice, China is shooting itself in the foot, since ASEAN’s exceptional success as a regional organisation has also facilitated China’s peaceful rise.

In the 1980s the strategic alignment of interests between ASEAN, China and the United States to reverse Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia enabled China to open up to the world. In the 1990s, after the West isolated China following the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, ASEAN kept engaging with China. In the 2000s, ASEAN reacted enthusiastically to China’s proposal for enhanced economic cooperation, which also coincided with China’s entry into the WTO.

China has also been exceptionally generous towards ASEAN. It stunned the world by being the first major economic power to propose a free trade agreement with ASEAN, motivating other powers to follow suit. China has been equally generous in its aid programs and was the first economic power to commit to enhancing ASEAN’s infrastructure. As a result, there were, until recently, massive reservoirs of goodwill towards China in ASEAN. It’s a tragedy that these reservoirs are now drying up.

ASEAN had responded positively to China’s generosity. It facilitated China’s rise in other salient ways. By converting the Balkans of Asia into one of the most peaceful regions in the world, ASEAN helped to change the chemistry of the larger East Asia region. China should look carefully at how Russia has been troubled by challenges in Ukraine and Syria. If Southeast Asia had emerged, like the Middle East, as a more troubled region, China would inevitably have been distracted.

Instead, ASEAN created a geopolitical oasis which helped maintain peace in East and South Asia. The annual ASEAN meetings provided the only safe and stable geopolitical platform for regional and great powers to talk to each other regularly. Whenever relations between China and Japan broke down, their leaders turned to the ASEAN meetings to restore matters.

ASEAN has therefore been a critical catalyst for the decades of peace that we have seen in the region. This is why the time has come for China to radically recalculate its interests in regards to ASEAN. Is the defence of the nine-dash line the ‘core interest’ of China in Southeast Asia? Or is it the continued success of ASEAN as a regional organisation promoting the culture of peace and prosperity in the broader region?

The answer almost seems obvious. This is what makes China’s recent actions towards ASEAN truly puzzling. China is jeopardising its own interests in undermining ASEAN unity.

More importantly, as China’s leaders frequently emphasise, China has not arrived as a modern developed power. Its per capita income is still only 25 per cent of the United States’. China still needs a few more peaceful decades to complete the job.

Ultimately, Deng Xiaoping was right when he called on the Chinese people to be patient. He was right in saying that the problem of territorial disputes should be passed to future generations. The problem of the South China Sea should be put on the back-burner. China’s larger interests in peaceful regional chemistry should push it towards preserving and strengthening the critical catalyst that has facilitated China’s rise so far.

Kishore Mahbubani is Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Managing China’.

10 thoughts on “ASEAN still the critical catalyst for China’s future

  1. Najib says he is joining Hadi Rohyinga protest because it’s an ASEAN matter. Other than fact it’s against agreed ASEAN way of dealing with issues, the question arise can Indonesia protest UMNO-PAS politics that now result in slander of Ahok and thousands being manipulated to protest in Jakarta?

    The Janus face thinks he is smart but the fact is hypocrisy; it is just being a jerk.

    He does not know what to do because of intense public pressure to account for his corrupt ways and abuses of power he is a very confused man. So he is becoming a bigger idiot than the PAS man, What is our Foreign Minister Anifah Aman doing apart from warming his seat? What did he accomplish when he went to Myanmar? We should mobilise international pressure on the Myanmar’s military since Aung San Suu Kyi is a letdown.–Din Merican

  2. Asean should be worried of Big Brother China.
    Quote: BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s armed forces must be smaller but more capable, and if reforms are not properly carried out the military risks falling behind, affecting its ability to wage war, Chinese state media on Saturday cited President Xi Jinping as saying.

    Certainly you don’t need a strong military to “wage war” but to ‘defend” the country. Xi clearly sends out signals of China’s intention and future plans.

  3. I would argue that China is thinking of its long term interests in the South China Sea. There will be no “global interests” unless you can take care of your immediate “regional” ones. China is looking after its national interests much as the Monroe Doctrine the American used to protect its backyard.

    Who first started the “land grab” in the South China Sea? You expect China to roll over to pretend to play dead? The “11 dash line” (now the 9 dash line) existed long before any of the ASEAN countries were nations, except Thailand. Those islands in the South China Sea are indefensible but they are strategically important as military outpost. It’s a geopolitical chess game between two large powers and all the smaller and weaker nations are chess pieces, not the players.

    China always put neighboring diplomacy at top of its whole external relationship. Unfortunately, the geography provides China a great disadvantage in this geopolitical chess game. No other country in the world has more neighbors than China — 14 overland neighbors and 6 maritime ones. It is impossible for China to treat every one the same. This give the US ample opportunity around China’s periphery to be able to instigate some into helping to contain China.

    There is no right or wrong in pursuing one’s national interests. There are only good or bad decisions being made. Both China and the US have made some good and bad decisions in this geopolitical chess game, and the sacrifices are always the “chess pieces.”

    In today’s world, a “strong nation” is not so much about “acreage,” it is all about “GNP.” A weak nation who wants to become a “player” and not just a “chess piece,” you better know how to hedge and soft balance between the rivalry large powers to concentrate on developing your economy until you are, at least, close to become an equal to act as a player. If you take side now, you will always be a “chess piece,” sacrifice by the large powers at their convenience.

  4. I don’t know where Semper fi has got the misinformation about Xi Jinping calling for military reform citing: “if reforms are not properly carried out the military risks falling behind, affecting its ability to wage war….” I’ve heard the full speech on Chinese TV and read the full content of the speech, never have I come across anything of “to wage war.”

    Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for a smaller army with better combat capability and optimized structure as the military reform deepens. He said changes must be made if China is to build a strong world-class army. Citing rapid changes to the global military environment, Xi spoke about the informationized modern warfare, noting that joint operations have grown to be the basic form of combat. He said the military’s structure must be readjusted and optimized, new type of forces be developed, the ratios between different types of forces be rationalized, and the number and the scale of the military be downsized.

    He said the Chinese army must grow into modern armed forces with Chinese characteristics, which can win informationized wars and implement their missions. Quantity should be reduced, quality improved to build a capable and efficient modernized standing army, adding that China must develop a joint operation force system with the elite force at its core.

    NEVER was there any mention of the “ability to WAGE WAR.” Misinterpretation? I don’t think so. I’ve met and known white reporters who speak better Mandarin than I do. This Misinformation Warfare against China has been going on for a very long time with the western media.

  5. That Star article was taken from Reuters. Rueters stated that it quoted a Xinhua news article regarding that “waging war” statement.

    However, I wasn’t able to find any mention of “waging war” from Xinhua.

    If we could find that statement from its source, then we’ll be able to conclusively vindicate the article from The Star.

  6. Semper fi:
    I believe you, bro. I’m not saying you made up that information. Never cross my mind that you are the type of person who would fabricate facts. I was referring to the western media and Reuters from which The Star got the source. Xi gave a lot of reasons for the military reform but none was “to wage war.”

  7. semper fi, smaller military foot print has an element of internal Chinese politics aspect to it also. i doubt there are any more hidden agenda other than political survival of individuals. Perhaps, we will see a few surprises later within our new adopted nation of USA also. Perhaps, Trump might pardon El Chapo before he leaves. After all, he did promise to have the Mexicans paid for a wall, right?

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