Power asymmetry in South China Sea | Inquirer Opinion

Power asymmetry in South China Sea

“China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact,” China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said at the 17th Asean Regional Forum in July 2010, after several countries, including the United States,  raised concerns on the South China Sea.

Most reports say the statement was directed at Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo, presumably in response to the city state’s active role in facilitating US military engagement in the region. Others consider it as a message for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which has been locked in a stalemate with China over how to manage disputes in the South China Sea, [which Manila now refers to as the West Philippine Sea].


Imperious attitude

The statement is one that people on the Chinese side may regret, as it may be quoted as representing an imperious attitude by China toward its smaller and weaker neighbors. It may also be a statement that the neighbors dread because it emphasizes difficulties in their future relations with China, notwithstanding decades of economic and political engagement and “charm offensive” by the region’s rising power.


It is a fact that China is a big country and it is a fact that many of its neighbors are small countries in comparison. What are the repercussions and ramifications of such a fact on the evolving dynamics of China-Southeast Asia relations?

In the geopolitics of the region and in the search for a new  order in the Asia Pacific, bigness is not always a source of strength, while smallness need not necessarily consign one to a position of weakness. Moreover, rising powers like China need smaller countries to validate and legitimize their aspirations for power and influence.

In China’s case, being big means having a huge market that attracts trade and investments, and large foreign exchange reserves, which it can invest elsewhere or offer as assistance to developing countries. It  means an immense pool of human resources from which to draw talent to help build a modern economy and  modern defense forces. Being big also gives it a seat on international organizations where rules of international society are made.

For many of its neighbors, being small means a greater dependence on international trade and foreign capital and technology to provide the needs of their populations, and a lack of self-reliant defense capability.


One caveat is in order: Using various measures, most Southeast Asian countries cannot really be considered small by traditional standards. Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand are the world’s 4th, 12th, 13th and 19th most populous countries, respectively, while collectively, Asean represents close to 600 million people.

Singapore and Brunei have the 3rd and 5th highest per capita gross domestic product (GDP) in the world while Indonesia had the 15th highest GDP in 2010. Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia are among the top 30 exporters and importers.


Big power behavior

Being big can be a source of either weakness or constraint for China.

Its recent assertive behavior in the South China Sea and East China Sea, the two areas that have the biggest impact on Southeast Asian stability, comes across as big power behavior.

Efforts to prevent oil and gas exploration activities by Vietnam and the Philippines within their respective exclusive economic zones (EEZ), the expansion of its military presence and conduct of increasingly sophisticated military exercises,  its sharp rebuke of Japan following the Japanese Coast Guard’s arrest of its fishermen in the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyutai, and its readiness to challenge US military activities in its EEZ and airspace,  are some of the more prominent indicators.

One wonders if these are signals of things to come and if our worst fears in Southeast Asia of China’s big power footprint are becoming realized. But the scenarios of Chinese behavior depend much on domestic factors and how it reads its external environment, including the role of other big powers.

Internal problems

Because China is big, it has many internal problems that its leaders will need to focus on, in particular the need to shore up legitimacy and ensure the continuing dominance of the Chinese Communist Party. China’s leaders are facing complex social and economic issues, many of them typical of developing countries but at a much larger scale. Some of these are leading to pressures for political or governance reform that will keep the incoming fifth generation leaders on their toes, and therefore in need of a stable external environment.

Moreover, Chinese society and polity have become much more pluralistic. Foreign policy is increasingly influenced by multiple actors and interests. Mining firms, construction companies, major manufacturing enterprises and even local governments of China now have important stakes in various countries of Southeast Asia. With respect to the South China Sea, actors include China’s oil industry interests, fishing companies and fisheries authorities, the latter apparently working in close consultation with the People’s Liberation Army Navy to enforce China’s sovereignty claims.

Double-edged sword

Public opinion, notably nationalistic in orientation because of the cumulative effects over time of state propaganda and historiography, weighs in on decision-makers more than ever before. But public opinion has become a double-edged sword that can be directed at the Chinese government as well.

One consequence of multiple interests and actors may be a breakdown in discipline and in the respect for authority of the center, leading to unpredictability and inconsistencies in China’s position.

Words, actions mismatch

One criticism of China’s behavior is the mismatch between its words and actions, although it is not clear that this is due to conflicting interests rather than by design. For instance, just as the successful visits by Premier Wen Jiabao to Malaysia and Indonesia were concluded in April, followed by Defense Secretary Liang Guanglie’s good-will visits to Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines, Beijing announced that it was beefing up its ocean surveillance capability for the South China Sea and that it would carry out more sea patrols.

However, having more foreign policy actors may also mean the gradual need for Beijing to more carefully weigh and balance competing interests in its foreign policy decision-making, which could constrain the influence of, say military hardliners, party conservatives or nationalistic netizens, in favor of those who emphasize regional integration and more pragmatic, cooperative approaches.

Multiple land borders

Another argument is that because China is big it shares land borders with many other countries, leading to multiple external security concerns. Among the 14 countries bordering China, there are still a few disputed areas (notably with India) that remain uneasy due to bigger geopolitical tensions with these countries, while fears of cross-border support for Xinjiang separatists from central Asian neighbors are bound to persist.

Aside from land borders, China has to contend with undefined maritime boundaries and territorial disputes in the East China Sea involving Japan, not to mention challenges on the Korean peninsula that have much, much more complex interfaces with China’s security interests than its problems with Southeast Asia.

Thus, in the overall scheme of things, China’s disputes with some Southeast Asian countries over the Spratlys and Paracels themselves do not appear to be a major threat to its core interests. However, the question of freedom of the sea lanes and the revived discourse on the global commons in light of China’s growing anti-access and area denial capability in the strategically important South China Sea, have enlarged the significance of the territorial and maritime jurisdiction disputes, thus drawing  Asean and specific member states into great power competition.

Strategic competition

Indeed, because China is big, other big powers are sensitive to the challenges that emerge as a consequence of its ascent to power. Many of us have observed the growing strategic competition between the United States and China, particularly in the maritime arena in the last two or three years, as China becomes more assertive of what it considers its core sovereignty and security interests, and the United States more protective of its longstanding primacy.

Until the rationale, parameters and objectives of Chinese power become more apparent and until other states are persuaded of their legitimacy and compatibility with efforts to build a stable new order, there will tend to be caution and concern toward China.

Wary neighbors

Finally, because China is big and a rising power, its smaller neighbors will tend to be wary of it, unfortunately almost regardless of how it plays its cards. This is the natural consequence not only of history, geographic proximity and power asymmetry, but also of irritants, including disputed territories in the South China Sea and water-resource conflicts in the Mekong.

The situation can of course be transformed over time, but in China-Southeast Asia relations we find that while an active and sustained diplomacy of cooperation and compromise gradually does improve perceptions of China, it takes little more than a few instances of Chinese military assertiveness to revert to suspicion and mistrust, and to push neighbors into hedging or balancing strategies.

We have been seeing more of assertive behavior from China and more of the tendency toward hedging and balancing on the part of Southeast Asia. Vietnam’s reported purchase of six kilo-class submarines from Russia, the Philippine decision to expand cooperation with the United States to promote territorial defense and maritime security, plus Indonesia’s, Singapore’s and Malaysia’s expanded security cooperation with the United States are all to one degree or another responses to the uncertainties caused by the rising power of China, even as there are other motivations underpinning them.

In sum, China appears more willing now to use its strength and size to promote its interests, driven by new domestic forces and reacting to explicit efforts by other big countries to secure their superior position as maritime powers in the waters surrounding China. But as pointed out, there are constraints and countervailing forces and trends that militate against an aggressive and violent rise for China.

Small countries hedge

What about the “small countries” of Southeast Asia? Small countries may have less options than big ones for dealing with rising powers, but they can still choose from quite a range—they can align with the rising power or try to balance against it by aligning with a competing power. They can pursue what international relations scholar Evelyn Goh calls the omni-enmeshment of multiple great powers, or they can concentrate on building institutions and inclusive communities. Asean is obviously doing a combination of these, and appears to be successful.

The higher a country’s degree of economic dependence on China, the stronger the temptation for it to align with the rising power. On the other hand, countries that can or need to, may engage in soft-balancing (hedging) or if necessary, hard-balancing by procuring more sophisticated weapons or allying with other big powers. Because they are “small countries,” hedging and balancing behavior are seen as natural and legitimate defensive strategies, that is, if they are willing to bear the trade-offs.

Next arena

Moreover, small countries can enlarge their influence by coordinating policies and actions through the various institutions, mechanisms and arrangements, such as in Asean. Collectively, Asean states have worked together with big and mid-size powers to drive processes that may eventually transform the regional order. The next arena for this will be the coming East Asia Summit where the United States and Russia will be participating for the first time, and the Asean Defense Ministers Meeting Plus.

Being “small,”  Southeast Asian states do not pose a challenge to China. No government in the region seeks to subvert the political system of China or to impose values or other conditions on their relations with China. They neither seek, despite territorial and maritime claims rivaling those of China, to reconfigure the limits of China’s recognized sovereignty, or to deprive China of energy or other resources required for its economic development.

But there are and will continue to be problems in relations with China. As the weaker states in the shadow of a rising power, Asean members are perhaps beginning to realize that only if they come together can the influence of each one over China grow stronger.

Strength in numbers

In the ongoing discussions on the implementing guidelines for the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, member states’ insistence on having intra-Asean consultations before sitting down with China betrays a desire to draw strength from numbers.

Sadly, as important as Asean unity may be in ensuring a solution that is peaceful and that does not end in hegemonic control by one power, the reality is that Asean states do not have a sufficiently unified position or strategy for addressing this issue. Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin of Malaysia said in his Asia-Pacific Roundtable opening remarks, “there is no better affirmation of the strong ties between Asean and China than a peaceful and expeditious resolution to our overlapping claims in the South China Sea.”

China can opt to leverage its size and strength to create division among the weaker states of Asean but again, it may find power asymmetry to be a double-edged sword, because weak states standing on their own may refuse to engage at all in what is perceived to be an unlevel playing field, leaving the strong state without an arena for engagement or leveraging.

In the end, how China relates with Southeast Asia depends on its evolving intentions as a regional power. An aspiring hegemon logically might prefer a weak and divided Southeast Asia, but one that truly aspires for a new multipolar order would benefit from a strong and united Asean that is confident and able to assert its own independent position on regional and global affairs.

It is also in its relations with small countries that China can best illustrate its intentions. As an aspiring power, China’s best chance of finding legitimacy and acceptance is through recognition of its great power status by its Southeast Asian neighbors, whereas other great powers may not be so easily persuaded.

Yin, yang

Big countries and small ones define each other. In the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, there is a harmony of opposites. Yin creates yang and yang activates yin. There is only value to being a great power if others are willing to recognize that you are one. In the context of China’s aspirations to attain respect as a regional power, it may be wiser for China to bring on the charm but, more importantly, to take more seriously the need for concrete actions to allay the concerns of neighbors over how China will choose to address the territorial and maritime disputes.

(Aileen San Pablo-Baviera, Ph.D., recently a visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, is a professor at the Asian Center, University of the Philippines. She is also affiliated with the MacArthur Asia Security Initiative project on “Policy Alternatives for Integrating Bilateral and Multilateral Regional Security Approaches in the Asia Pacific.” This article is a shortened version of her remarks  at a panel discussion on “China–Less Charm, More Offensive?” at the 25th Asia Pacific Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur on  May 30.)

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TAGS: Asean, China, defense, Diplomacy, Foreign affairs, geopolitics, Military, Philippines, South China Sea, Vietnam, West Philippine Sea
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