US and China Jostle for Influence in Southeast Asia
Prof Rajaram Panda
Introduction

China’s conduct of diplomacy backed by its economic strength and military power has emerged as the topic of analysis by experts who try to understand what could be China’s long-term goals. Its relations with the US are under stress. Its relations with its neighbours – Japan and South Korea – are problematic over a host of issues. Its cosiness with North Korea is another worrying issue. The Ukraine crisis has brought both China and Russia closer now than ever before. These are troubling developments.

Against these developments, what remains as the main driver is China’s economic interconnectedness with most of the Asian countries, including India, which empowers China to play its economic card as convenient to it. This dependency relationship puts considerable limits to other sovereign states to play their own independent roles, thereby conceding leverage to China. There is no easy answer how to get out of the rigmarole as the dependency relationship gives China an edge over its smaller partners whose vulnerability China is expert in exploiting.

Against this background, China has focussed in tightening its noose on the smaller countries in Southeast Asia by not only binding those into a kind of economic relationship from which they find it difficult to extricate themselves but now attempting to bind those states into a network of military cooperation. This article makes an attempt to analyse this dimension of China’s relationship with the smaller nations in Southeast Asia.

China’s Military Exercises with ASEAN

In 2023, China held a record number of military exercises in Southeast Asia. This reflects its intent to hold its ground amid a tussle with the US for regional influence, stemming also from growing influence of its armed forces. However, as compared to that of the US, China’s defence engagements in the region are relatively small in scale and largely bilateral. With plenty of hidden clauses in such arrangements, these arrangements work to Beijing’s advantage. [1]

There is another dimension to this style of China’s diplomacy. Since Chinese military has come under pressure due to its involvement in regional flashpoints such as the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, the Chinese leadership probably felt the need to improve PLA’s image by militarily engaging with the Southeast Asian nations at bilateral levels. By this style of conducting defence diplomacy, the talks of Chinese threat could also be allayed, so it is perceived in Beijing.

In 2023, China participated in 14 joint defence cooperation engagements in Southeast Asia. Till September 2023, PLA participated in 11 engagements, which was the highest number ever and more than in any part of the world for 2023. Before the year ended, China held engagement with Vietnam’s coast guard, followed by land and maritime exercise with five Southeast Asian countries in November, and ended with a naval exercise with Cambodia in November.

In 2019 before Covid-19 pandemic, Japan participated in seven joint drills with various Southeast Asian nations. The spike in defence engagements during the post-Covid-19 period was probably to make up for the lost time and when China was battling to combat the virus. Huang Chin-Hao of the National University of Singapore argues in his “Power and Restraint in China’s Rise” that the increased frequency of military engagements by China demonstrates the PLA’s growing confidence in its capabilities. [2]

China’s Power Projection Ambitions

It is the commonly-held view that China’s rise is disrupting the global balance of power in unpredictable ways. China’s latest strategy however has been to weave the small neighbouring countries in the region into a web of regional security arrangements rather than running roughshod over them. If one goes by this argument, it is necessary to understand why and when China chooses to exercise restraint as this aspect of Chinese statecraft would challenge the assumptions of international relations theory.

There are two dimensions to this argument. One is China’s rising power aspirations allow it to refrain from choosing any coercive measures to assert its claims. This however is the half-truth. At least China delicately balances its policies at least to give the impression that it accepts regional norms, which it believes, improves external perceptions of China while expecting at the same time that such a policy choice helps in advancing other states’ recognition of China as a legitimate power. The other dimension to this argument is that the ASEAN member states have chosen a collective approach to defuse tensions in maritime disputes, thereby cajoling Beijing to accept the grouping’s regional security initiatives, a departure from its earlier stance. Huang’s analysis is thus based on this hypothesis that great powers eschew coercion in favour of restraint when they seek legitimacy to their policies and strategy.

It is difficult to agree with Huang as Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged to build a “world class” military by 2050. With such plan in place, China hiked its annual defence budget to about $231.36 billion in 2024, a 7.2 per cent rise and the eighth straight year of increase. As for now, Beijing’s priority has been to reach out more directly to engage in bilateral military exercises with select countries in the region. This strategy also helps China to assess the military capabilities of its potential rivals and accordingly plan to improve its own capabilities.

Writing in Global Times, Liu Xuanzun argues that “the moderate figure reflects China’s reasonable, restrained and steady steps in national defence development, which takes factors including military modernization, external security environments and economic development into account”. [3] China’s defence budget has maintained single-digit growth for nine consecutive years since 2016.

China has argued that many countries such as the US and Japan have hiked their military expenditures in recent years. For example, the US President Joe Biden in December 2023 reportedly authorized a record $886 billion annual military spending for fiscal 2024, nearly four times China's figure. Similarly, Japan's Cabinet in December 2023 approved a hefty 16 percent increase in military spending in 2024, in addition to easing its post-war ban on lethal weapons exports, underscoring a shift away from the country's self-defence-only principle.

US-China Strategic Competition

China’s engagement strategy towards the Southeast Asian nations has also a co-relation with its strategic competition with its main rival, the US, as both aspire to secure their slice in the regional pie. Both China and the US are also aware that the 10-member bloc forms the fifth-largest economy in the world, with collective GDP amounting to $3.6 trillion in 2022, surpassing the pre-pandemic levels. At least for now, getting a bigger foothold in the strategic market with a view to expand their respective presence and influence seems to be a priority for both China and the US. For example, the PLA’s bilateral exercises with regional militaries, with the sole exception to Exercise Cobra Gold in February 2023 had limited Chinese participation of just 25 soldiers - and ‘Peace and Friendship 2023’ in November 2023, involving five ASEAN nations and held in China for the first time.

The truism however is that, as of now Beijing trails Washington when it comes to the scale, scope and depth of defence engagements in Southeast Asia. China’s joint engagements involve few hundred military personnel from each side. For example, round 250 PLA troops participated in China-Cambodia joint drills in March 2023. The Cambodian military deployed about double that number. In contrast, US engagements in the region generally have considerably higher troop participation across more countries. This can be observed in exercises such as Cobra Gold (about 7,000 troops), Balikatan (close to 18,000 troops) and Super Garuda Shield (more than 5,000 troops). It transpires therefore that the US engagements are usually larger in scale, longstanding, and in several cases, already institutionalised and regularised. Some of the alliances and partnerships date back to the Cold War era.

For example, the Philippines and Thailand have been treaty allies of the US since the 1950s. A seven-decade-old mutual defence treaty between Washington and Manila also requires both nations to support each other should either side come under attack. Washington has sought a larger presence in Manila, as demonstrated by the new base deal in early 2023, with a view to check China’s growing influence in the region. [4] Moreover, China’s exercises are often performative events, more symbolic than substantive. Joint drills with China often focus on “less sensitive domains” such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counter terrorism and anti-piracy. In contrast, US military engagements tend to gear towards “combat interoperability” and building up the capacity of regional militaries.

Though China’s military engagements with the Southeast Asian nations could be low key yet Beijing’s militarisation of the South China Sea in recent years, building outposts and deploying vessels to enforce its sweeping claims over much of the disputed waters shows a different intent of Chinese diplomacy. Further, its stepping up drills in the Taiwan Strait and conducting live-wire exercises simulating the encirclement of the island, which Beijing claims as its own territory, negates whatever benign intent that it might convey to the world in its engagement strategy with the ASEAN bloc. Beijing’s military power projection strategy to achieve its aim always has unintended consequences. That is why one needs to read China’s military engagement with the ASEAN bloc with scepticism.

In this strategic competition and jostling for influence, both the US and China have stepped up their respective military engagements. For example, in 2023, the US had a combat training exercise with the Philippines titled Cope Thunder, which was revived after more than three decades. The Cobra Gold and Garuda Shield exercises which were bilateral drills earlier with Thailand and Indonesia respectively, have since morphed into major multilateral endeavours. The US has also pushed for new engagements, such as the very first ASEAN-US maritime exercise in 2019. Notwithstanding the increased military engagement of the US with the ASEAN bloc, it is unlikely that Beijing will downscale its maritime claims.

Though Beijing is unlikely to turn the scale in its favour vis-a-vis the US because of the preponderance of US military might, it still retains its long-term goal to promote a China-led security order that displaces and eventually excludes the US. In his Global Security Initiative unveiled on February 2023, Xi Jinping floated his proposal for solving security challenges. [5] Thus, by conducting military exercises with Southeast Asian countries, China is attempting to show that it can be an alternative provider of regional security goods to the US.

The ASEAN nations are expected to maintain their balancing act in this US-China strategic competition for regional influence. During his stint as the bloc’s chair in 2023, Indonesian President Joko Widodo repeatedly emphasised that ASEAN will not become a proxy for any power, and will cooperate with anyone for peace and prosperity. That probably conveys the common viewpoint of the ASEAN nations.

First ASEAN Joint Exercise

While balancing ties with the US and China, the Southeast Asian nations have also started building their own capability for future contingency. For example, Indonesia hosted the first ASEAN joint military exercise, code-named ASEAN Solidarity Exercise 2023 (ASEX 2023) from 19 to 23 September 2023. It was the first ASEAN-wide military exercise not involving any external party. [6]

The exercise was non-combat in nature. It involved sea and land-based activities with Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), maritime security, search and rescue, medical evacuation, and anti-piracy components. All ten ASEAN members participated, with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore deploying warships. There are a number of reasons for countries to participate in military exercises. Since the ASEAN is not military alliance, the objective was to create trust between military forces and pursue interoperability.

In view of the enormity of this path-breaking initiative, a detailed analysis shall be made separately. Suffice to say here is that the 10-member bloc is unlikely to remain stooge to either the US or China. Its sole objective is and shall remain to protect, defend and further the bloc members’ economic and security interests by striking a balance between the US and China. China on its part would try to create division in the bloc by getting cosy with certain member but that strategy is unlikely to succeed.

References

[1] Wong Woon Shin, “China held a record number of military exercises with ASEAN states in 2023. What’s fuelling the spike?”, 5 February 2024, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/china-record-number-military-exercises-southeast-asia-asean-states-regional-influence-4091536
[2] See, Chin-Hao Huang, Power and Restraint in China’s Rise, Columbia University, 2022, pp. 240.
[3] Liu Xuanzun, “China raises defense budget by 7.2% for 2024, ‘conducive to peace’, stability”, 5 March 2024, https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/china/2024/03/china-240305-globaltimes01.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e3856%2eon0ao069c5%2e3l38
[4] See, Rajaram Panda, “US-Philippines Base Deal aimed to Check China”, 17 February 2023, https://www.vifindia.org/article/2023/february/17/us-philippines-base-deal-aimed-to-check-china
[5] “China releases 'global security initiative'”, 21 February 21, 2023, https://www.dw.com/en/china-releases-global-security-initiative/a-64771523
[6] Rahman Yaacob, “ASEAN’s first joint military exercise”, 26 September 2023, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/asean-s-first-joint-military-exercise

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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