Veteran Swedish journalist and Myanmar analyst Bertil Lintner has said that while the rest of the world is preoccupied with the Covid-19 outbreak, China is “taking advantage” of the chaos in the Indo-Pacific region with a new security law in Hong Kong, border clashes with India, confrontations in the South China Sea, and by using the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to become world’s leading superpower.
In an interview, Lintner, also the author of several books on Myanmar shared his perspective on Beijing’s ambitions and what they mean for conflict and development in the region.
He said that it is now “obvious that China is taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic”.
“While the rest of the world is preoccupied with its own, internal problems, China is flexing its muscles in the Indo-Pacific region with a new security law in Hong Kong, Chinese fighter jets entering Taiwan’s airspace, the ramming of Vietnamese and Philippine fishing boats in the disputed South China Sea, a month-long standoff between a Malaysian oil exploration vessel and a Chinese survey ship in the same waters—and open confrontation with the Indians along the Line of Actual Control [LAC] that separates the two countries in the western Himalayas,” Lintner said.
China, he said, wants to become the world’s leading superpower, and those aggressive postures—and the more “benign” Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are part of that long-term strategy.
Talking about the India-China clash in Ladakh and the killing of 20 Indian soldiers in a bloody stand-off between both sides’ troops in Galwan valley on June 15, Lintner said that the confrontation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) had nothing to do with the border.
“It’s a question of strategic rivalries between Asia’s two giants and, more specifically, China’s wanting to punish India for rejecting its multinational infrastructure program, the BRI, and show the neighbors who rules the roost in the region,” Lintner said.
Referring to the events of 1962, when India never suspected that China would ever launch an attack, but it did, Lintner stated that the present Indian leadership must take a closer look at its relationship with China and the communist regime’s ambitions.
“In the 1950s, before the 1962 war, India’s then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru thought China was a friend and a partner. It was India that brought the summit in Bandung which, in 1955, gave birth to the Non-aligned Movement. 1962 came as a shock to Nehru: he never recovered from it and died in 1964. Likewise, the present Indian leadership may have thought it would be possible to revive that old friendship, but the recent clash on the LAC may have prompted them to reevaluate that “friendship” and take a closer look at China’s ambitions,” he said.
Lintner also commented on the effectiveness of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in countering the Xi Jinping governed country, saying that the guiding principles of ASEAN make the bloc “totally impotent”.
“The problem with ASEAN is that it is not a ‘Southeast Asian EU’. It has no common policies and there is actually minimal cooperation between its member states. ASEAN has two guiding principles: non-interference and consensus, and that makes it totally impotent as a bloc,” he said.
He added: “ASEAN never “interfered” in East Timor (it was considered an “internal affair” for Indonesia), it never tried to solve border disputes between Laos and Thailand, Thailand and Cambodia, Cambodia and Vietnam, and the Philippines and Malaysia (Sabah). It has considered the Pattani insurgency in southern Thailand an internal Thai affair, so it never got involved as a bloc (only Mahathir Mohamad did, and then in a private initiative). Myanmar’s civil wars are considered an “internal affair” so ASEAN is not even trying to get involved as a mediator. Some ASEAN countries, like Laos and Cambodia, are one-party states: Cambodia is ruled by a strongman who has been in power for decades, Brunei is an absolute monarchy, Malaysia and Singapore are semi-democracies, in Thailand the military remains a very powerful institution behind the elected government and that’s also the case in Myanmar.
“The Philippines and Indonesia are probably the most “democratic” countries in ASEAN. This divergence of political systems and views makes it impossible for ASEAN to agree on its most fundamental principle: consensus.”
This, he said, is also reflected in the way the different member states view China.
“Cambodia and Laos are very close to China and never criticize it while Vietnam has been involved in several, serious conflicts with China. The other ASEAN members have their own policies towards China, which overlap and contradict each other. China, of course, is aware of this and deals with ASEAN members bilaterally—a kind of divide-and-rule policy, one might say,” Lintner concluded.