China wins more ASEAN friends as the US watches

Dhaka,  Sun,  04 December 2016
Published : 25 Nov 2016, 22:26:54

China wins more ASEAN friends as the US watches

Sayed Kamaluddin
The outgoing American President Barack Obama's proactive diplomacy in the Southeast and East Asian region to consolidate his Asia pivot policy and wean over the ASEAN members from China's influence is apparently in trouble. Obama's Asia pivot was launched in 2013 essentially to isolate Asia's emerging power China and consolidate American hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping was organised in the 1960s with six pro-American countries such as Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand at a time when China was nowhere in the geopolitical scenario. Subsequently, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam joined the group while Burma (now Myanmar), despite repeated requests, refused because of its strict neutral foreign policy.  However, years later, it too joined up.

The recent visits of two top leaders of Malaysia and the Philippines to China have actually tipped the grouping's balance in Beijing's favour to the chagrin of the outgoing lame duck Obama administration. 

THE IMPACT OF THE VISITS IN THE REGION: The mercurial Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's sudden decision to revise his country's American policy and pay an official visit to China in October for improving economic ties was a major blow to the US's Asia pivot policy. Duterte was quite open about his goal and told newsmen in Manila only days before his departure for Beijing that he was 'seeking billions of dollars and buckets of respect'.

Duterte, who began his four-day visit to China from  October 18, brought an entourage literally of "hundreds of businessmen" with him to Beijing. And they were not disappointed as Chinese President Xi Jinping warmly received Duterte and agreements and loan pledges worth $24 billion with the Philippines were signed. The deals included, among others, investments in country's infrastructure projects, energy, technology and defence cooperation and supply.

Before his departure for Beijing, President Duterte announced that he was open to joint military exercises with China and Russia and buy military equipment from China ("not in large numbers"). Besides, he said he would need small fast attack boats from China to fight "terrorism". He said, "If China does not help us in this endeavour, we will have a hard time fighting terrorism", but did not elaborate.

Manila's bilateral relations with Beijing worsened under President Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino, who tried to challenge Beijing's "hegemonic" policy in the South China Sea by filing a case in the International Court of Justice on China's claims about the disputed islands.

Duterte's visit to China and signing a large number of deals defying US influence must have also encouraged the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to take his pick. He did not take too much of time to follow Duterte because of deteriorating ties between his country and the US and decided to take the plunge. Najib also did well in China, in fact, even better, and oversaw signing of a large number of agreements and MoUs with China worth a whopping $34 billion.

Apart from the purchase of some military hardware and a few small naval vessels, the deals also include a $13.11 billion project for China to develop a modern railway network.

UPROAR ON DEFENCE DEALS WITH CHINA: The defence-related deals that the Philippines and Malaysia signed with the Chinese government caused widespread discussions around the world. In fact, pro-Western think tanks, analysts and mainstream media went to town by taking the advantage of some minor details about the defence deals that Duterte and Najib separately volunteered, and concluded that they have joined the China bandwagon.

Manila has been a close ally of the US for a long time and the latter took it for granted that Manila would always side with Washington. Newly elected President Duterte's sudden outburst against the US has actually surprised most people. Washington and the West's strong criticism over Duterte's controversial war against drug abuse and killing of over 2000 alleged drug dealers without trial greatly annoyed him. The Filipinos themselves are yet to settle down and still groping in the darkness. But this did not dent Duterte's popularity.

However, Kuala Lumpur's  case was different. Malaysia  has always been generally pro-West, former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohammad pushed it to be more independent and an ardent critic of American military and economic policies. But, it always maintained its distance from China.

The Western media and the news agencies are now awash with reports claiming Malaysians are questioning the 'China agreements' saying that "it is tilting the country towards Beijing' and that Najib Razak is facing grumbling back home for "selling off his country" and so on. No doubt that some critics are questioning the latest tilt, but the ground reality does not match the virulent propaganda.

The reasons for all these are that the deals include Malaysia's "first significant defence deal with China and to buy four Chinese naval vessels". The four Littoral Mission ships - fast patrol vessel - that can be equipped with helicopters' flight deck and missiles. All this information is available in the Facebook of the Malaysian defence ministry. If the agreement is sealed and the military hardware bought, it would symbolise closer political and diplomatic ties between Beijing and Kuala Lumpur. 

Soon after Najib Razak's visit, Mayanmar Defence Services Commander-in-Chief General Ming Aung Haing paid an official visit to Beijing to discuss military-to-military relations and other important issues. Of course, Mayanmar has been a close ally of China for a long time though lately the Myanmar leaders tried to maintain a distance from their giant neighbour as they were trying to respond to some positive gestures from the US and some Western countries to improve ties.

HOW WILL IT AFFECT THE REGION: China has maintained close ties with both Laos and Cambodia from the beginning and it has paid off. Now, the stable Thai-Myanmar relations would increase their overall strategic value for China, both within the shifting geopolitics of Southeast Asia as well as in ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) context. 

Singapore, being the smallest nation in the region, has always played the most balanced and pragmatic role in geopolitical context. US President Barack Obama after meeting Singapore Prime Minister earlier this year praised the wise, balanced and acceptable counsel that Singapore often proffers at crucial international meetings to help break any impasse. So, it is unlikely change its track.

The visits by the top leaders of two major ASEAN countries have highlighted Beijing's warm and closer ties with Southeast Asian countries. It already had drawn both Cambodia and Laos (both ASEAN members) in closer diplomatic ties. Some other ASEAN member countries, including Vietnam, that have been influenced by the US to counter China in the South China Sea, are seriously thinking about balancing their course.

With the US President-elect Donald Trump's announcement on November 22 to cancel the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement on the first day of his presidency, Barack Obama's Asia pivot policy is likely to be thrown into the back burners. China's earlier initiative to launch Asia-Pacific free trade area will obviously get a new impetus.

sayed.kamaluddin@gmail.com
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