Rizal Ramli: Countering China's rising Influence

In some of South-east Asia's largest democracies, citizens have started to become actually aware of the risk of China using money pol...

In some of South-east Asia's largest democracies, citizens have started to become actually aware of the risk of China using money politics to curry favour with local elites.

Earlier this month, at the U.S.-ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Singapore, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a commitment for U.S. government investments in the region. Touted under the grandiloquent name of America’s Indo-Pacific Economic Vision, it the economic pillar of a larger security-driven U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy that aims to counter the rising influence of China and its hegemonic ambitions.

While the Indo-Pacific Economic Vision is a good start for the Trump administration, it is extraordinarily modest in comparison with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI; with an initial US$113 million tied in the energy, infrastructure and cybersecurity sectors, critics point out it is a tiny fraction of the amounts China has already spent and what it plans to spend over the coming decades which, in Beijing’s estimates, could total a trillion dollars.

Although Pompeo noted the U.S. investments are only a downpayment, intimating we can expect larger commitments in the future, a healthy dose of skepticism is in order.

The U.S. government doesn’t possess the same organizational DNA as China does—Xi Jingping has numerous state-owned enterprises and commercial banks at his disposal for overseas investments to realize his party’s vision of commercial dominance, none of which the U.S.A. possesses.  And, unlike the U.S.A., its disciplined one-party system enables Xi Jinping and his top cadres to think about and act upon its long-term interests in a strategic, coherent manner..

China advertises the BRI, which is a modern-day version of the Han dynasty’s Silk Road, as a win-win proposition for recipient countries and dresses up its projects as economic development aid. But for those who bother to scratch the surface and go beyond Beijing’s slick marketing for the BRI, it is clear the underlying strategic intent is not necessarily benign.

For sure, the BRI will contribute towards development, especially in poorer developing nations that would otherwise lack access to infrastructure financing.  But the critical question is, at what potential cost to our collective security?  If Beijing’s vision is realized, its ports and pipelines will give China the ability to dominate the energy interstate stretching from the Middle East, through chokepoints into Europe, across the Indian Ocean in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, and finally through the Straits of Malacca into the South China Sea.

Even more worrisome, at least for the immediate future, is the South China Sea conflict. China is contesting practically all of the territorial rights of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan over an area of 3.5 million square kilometers and in which US$3-5 trillion of trade passes through every year.

 Xi Jingping once told former U.S. President Obama in the Rose Garden that China would not militarize the South China Sea.  Last month, the message was starkly different, with Xi telling visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Matthis China will not give up “any inch of territory passed down from ancestors.”

Beijing has offered constant assurances to its neighbors it will not resort to military force to back its claims even though it has continued to expand its territory by building a series of artificial islands in the South China Sea and turning them into naval ports and airfields.  While the Chinese military might conceivably never attack any of the disputant states, the cumulative effect of its actions in the South China Sea is one of coercion.  In effect, Beijing is telling us, ‘accept this new territorial status, or otherwise face the risk of war’.

China’s neighbors entangled in the South China Sea dispute have found some comfort, however, in the Trump administration’s decision to increase its naval presence in the region along with its allies.  The United States, Japan, France and Australia have spent an unprecedented number of hours in the South China Sea over the past year, which has effectively guaranteed freedom of navigation and deterred China from building up more islets.

Unlike many politicians and policymakers in the United States and here in Asia, I tend to take a more optimistic view on China and its future role in the greater Indo-Pacific region.  This is not because Xi’s China will suddenly decide to change course.  The history of international relations reveals that rising powers will invariably challenge the status quo.  But they don’t always succeed in their ambitions.

The main reason why one should remain optimistic is China has the potential to learn from its mistakes.  Xi is surely aware of the fact China’s execution of the BRI has been anything but smooth.

Excessive levels of Chinese-backed BRI financing has raised the specter of ‘debt traps’ that could not only place recipient country economies at grave risk but give Beijing a lever to influence its politics.

Then there is the gnawing fear that strategic BRI port projects, in places like Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean and in Malaysia and Indonesia along the Straits of Malacca could end up being used by the Chinese navy for military purposes—as a consequence, more and more countries are growing hostile towards the BRI.    Pretty soon, if Beijing does not adjust its financing policies and dial back on its port projects, it may soon find there will be fewer and fewer countries willing to participate in the BRI.

If China does not adjust and governments continue to sign up for BRI projects, Beijing could face pressure from voters in recipient countries.  For example, in some of Southeast Asia’s largest democracies—which include Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines—citizens have started to become acutely aware of the risk of China using money politics to curry favor with local elites.

Hence it is not surprising that Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir is reviewing past commitments by his country to BRI projects.  Many of those projects could easily be cancelled in the near future.  President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines is also starting to come under increasing pressure for being overly cozy with Beijing.   It has now been more than two years since the Philippines won a ruling in The Hague regarding China’s claims in the South China Sea.  Yet Duterte has been conspicuously non-confrontational with Beijing.

And finally, the Indonesian electorate have become uneasy with President Joko Widodo and his cabinet’s close ties with their superpower neighbor, as well. This will surely become a major issue for voters when they decide next April whether or not to grant Mr. Widodo a second term in office.    Many smart political analysts think this could prove to be Widodo’s Achilles Heel—and they are probably right.


Written by Dr Rizal Ramli, the former Indonesia Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs, 2015-2016. And former Coordinating Minister for the Economy, 2000-2001.

Source: Singapore’s The Business Times, August 16, 2018.


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