Southeast Asia’s Red Line against China’s Hegemonic Approach

China’s superiority not only as a regional powerhouse but also as a predator in the global arena has prompted many of its neighbouring countries to adopt a cautionary approach to the red dragon.  China on its part, has initiated its quest for power by intensifying its multi-trillion-dollar pet project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to ascend the Chinese state as the hegemon of the global world. The project however, has mostly been a contentious prospect of which global financial advisors have generally warned against. China’s ability to trap credit taking nations and is understood to be an economic bait in order to influence power over economically volatile countries.

Throughout the previous decade, financial assistances in the form of developmental aid and financial loans have diluted economic sovereignty of countries all around the world mostly through the sweetened deals enacted through the BRI. Nations from the African continent to South Asia have been victims of China’s atrocious financial strategy and have gone bankrupt seeking monetary assistances from other global financial institutions. Countries including Zambia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh are a few of the many cases in points and thus this has also led to Chinese investment not being taken at face-value anymore due to additional non-favourable terms and conditions included in such investments for host nations.

A prominent teaching for the world however, has been laid down in China’s own backyard by the Southeast Asian countries. These nations have resiliently withheld China’s attempts to economically breach into the country’s sovereignty and have rather harnessed the power of China’s financial might to their own advantage. Although China has been showing greater interest within the region for various purposes including in countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and others, they have by and large managed to fortify their economies from severe dependency on China’s finances. Beijing’s priority on security interests and strategic choke points have also added to the frustration and misery of its continuous failures in Southeast Asia.

 Historically speaking, the two regions have had quite a turbulent past. The Chinese Communist Party have in the past has not only supported but have also advanced various guerrilla movements behest their revolutionary ideology throughout the region. This also prompted an alliance in the form of Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation in 1955 which culminated in the form of Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) in 1967. The ASEAN group was at the time a bloc of five non-communist states involving Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. The formation of the bloc has since then made China cautious in its approach in the region.

In 2002, China signed a free trade agreement with the ASEAN bloc seeking to forge viable economic relations with the members of the association in an attempt to open up markets for Chinese goods. These endeavours however, have been constructed under the ambit of a crucial territorial dispute that the Chinese government has been persistently escalating with some of the ASEAN member countries. The South-China Sea dispute involves many of the maritime members of the ASEAN grouping and has caused significant barriers for expansion of the relationship. Countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei and Philippines have had serious apprehension upon China’s illegally claimed nine-dash-line, which intrudes in to their own geographical territories. This dispute has also led to many escalations and stand-offs involving the maritime countries around the disputed area. China on the contrary has built over 3200 acres of artificial landmass and has completely militarized at least three of its artificially constructed islands in the disputed waters. The Paracel and Spratly islands have significantly enhanced Chinese offensive capabilities and has significantly extended their exclusive economic zones beyond their mainland shores.

Relations between both the fast-growing regions has therefore drawn some international attention not only due to their economic trades and cultural outreaches but also largely due to the territorial disputes. However, there are far reaching consequences for both China and the members of the ASEAN bloc which at times can also act as a buffer during escalation of conflicts. For instance, the Chinese manufacturing sectors seems to be heavily dependent on imports from the region in order to cater to their factories for export-oriented goods. In the last decade alone, China’s trade volume has nearly doubled with 10 countries from the ASEAN region ranging from $443 billion in 2013 to $878 billion in 2021. This has led to many of the Southeast Asian nations such as Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and others running a trade surplus with their Chinese counterparts. The ASEAN within in the same period went on to become the biggest trading block with China in 2020, indicating the importance of the region in the geopolitical calculations of the countries concerned.

China has been attempting to build an exclusive partnership with the bloc enabling it to push the countries concerned in to an economic debt trap. Beijing’s strategy however has rather failed in the Southeast Asian region. The members of the ASEAN region have rather maintained the balance well with respect to China and have indicated to them that the grouping cannot be lured in to Chinese promises. The trust deficit that the nations of the Southeast Asian region face against China is a moral reminder of Chinese tactics and has prevented them from giving in to China’s wolf-warrior portrayals. Beijing, on the other hand recognizes the importance of having the countries of the region align with their own national interests and have therefore attempted to mend the relations given the history of conflict due to the nine-dash line.

Maintaining of sovereign autonomy is perhaps amongst the most basic principles of the modern nation-state. China in their attempt to rise as the single most dominant hegemon in the world is on a path of infringing upon that very basic principle. Southeast Asian countries however have proven that there are red lines along the way that cannot be breached if a nation wishes to intrude upon their sovereignty. Hence, in that very red line, lays an important lesson for the world; Chinese growth in the international forum at any cost must not come as a trade off to the nation’s economic and political autonomy.