AT the Mekong-Lancang Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting in Hainan last Wednesday, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang offered the five Asean countries along the Mekong river that attended it with China, US$11.5bil in loans and credit for infrastructure and other projects.
There was no time frame on disbursement and there was no indication on how the facilities would be distributed among Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, who were all well represented at the meeting. Li acknowledged how the countries involved were all “family.”
The Lancang-Mekong Co-operation framework was launched in November 2014 in Myanmar at the 17th China-Asean Summit. At the time US$20bil in loans had been offered for the construction of roads, ports and railways – all much needed particularly by the less developed Asean countries.
The occasion in Myanmar provided a measure of relief to China following suspension of the Myitsone dam project in 2011.
Of course, underlying or overhanging all these substantial offers of financial largesse, are even the more massive promise of what is to come from the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) and the Silk Road Fund, all of which would result in greater use of the yuan and a Co-Prosperity sphere centred on Beijing. This is not to mention huge bilateral contracts and loans with individual Asean countries, including our own.
With the piling up of all this money, it is scarce wonder there is a gravitational pull of countries in the region towards China. The extent of it however varies depending on need and pride. There is thus a self-fulfilled divided Asean without China having to do anything overt about it.
Like individuals, some countries may sell their soul for money. Others may even trade territorial integrity.
As in a family, the promise of money is sometimes linked with good behaviour and obeisance of the patriarch.
The diplomacy of relations with China among countries of the region – despite the brave front of Asean unity and centrality – is thus rather murky, with a lot of mutual suspicion.
So it might be said China has it made. However, China is undermining its economic attraction through its statements and actions supporting its extravagant claims in the South China Sea.
There seems to be a miscalculation on how far it can go but still have Asean countries eating out of its hands and gawking at its financial promise.
Even if there are domestic political considerations for China’s harsh and inflexible stand, there equally is this self-belief now in China’s economic – and military - weight.
The difference between China in 2002, when it signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea with the direction to negotiation of a Code of Conduct, with Asean as a whole, and China in 2012, when it hounded the Philippines from the Scarborough Shoal, is that China had become bigger and stronger in the 10 intervening years.
Suddenly China wants to negotiate only with claimant Asean states bilaterally, not Asean as a whole.
Negotiation on the Code of Conduct has dragged on and on. The Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) is being impressed on China by Singapore, representing Asean, to cover both naval vessels and coast guards in territorial waters as well (The CUES as signed by 21 countries in 2014 including China and the US covered the high seas and the Exclusive Economic Zone).
Even this has so far not gained any traction with China.
Meanwhile China has turned seven uninhabitable atolls in the disputed sea into artificial islands with proclaimed 12-mile territorial sea rights.
There is an expectation Scarborough Shoal would be next. American – or any – freedom of navigation operations (FON ops) are denounced as violating China’s territorial integrity, an advance on the already extensive historical and traditional rights to the South China Sea as defined by the nine-dash line.
The South China Sea is being militarised. Landing strips for fighter jets have been constructed and surface-air-missiles are in place. The US has responded with the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group.
We must defend our territorial rights, the Chinese masses demand. The Americans have increased tension by their aggressive actions, the Chinese foreign ministry proclaims.
Have we got to believe all this? Just look at who took what actions and at their sequence. We cannot be blind to the facts and to become senseless because of repetition of untruths.
Asean must show it cannot be bought. That it is not without principles and is not spineless. That, exactly, it will defend its sovereignty and integrity – which it does so well with one another in the process of integration –- against all comers.
China may be overplaying its hand. An article in Khmer Times of Cambodia, widely seen as the most pro-China of Asean states, observed last Wednesday in an article entitled “Shared-River-Shared-Future” (perhaps in keeping with Chinese dialectics to obscure what it has to say): “China may need to readjust its foreign policy approach towards South-East Asia, particularly in regard to the South China Sea disputes.
Clearly, China’s approach towards the Mekong countries is more effective than its approach towards the South China Sea.”
The incident this week, reportedly well within Indonesian territorial waters in Natuna, shows that China’s claims are expansive and threatening – and are not confined to potential clashes between the US and China alone.
They seriously affect Asean states, in this case even a non-claimant state.
After an Indonesian patrol boat had detained eight Chinese fishermen and their trawler found fishing in Indonesian territory, at least one Chinese coast guard vessel rammed the Chinese boat to try and free it.
A similar incident happened three years ago. An Indonesian patrol boat was forced to release detained Chinese crew fishing in its waters when confronted by China’s armed maritime law enforcement vessel.
This time Indonesia is not taking it lying down. Despite China’s request that the clash be kept quiet (“Don’t tell the media, we are friends after all...”), there was a strong and very public Indonesian reaction.
China’s charge d’affaires was summoned to the foreign ministry in Jakarta to receive a stiff protest.
Instead of apologising China’s foreign ministry loudly claimed that the trawler was operating in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds” when attacked and harassed by the Indonesian patrol boat.
This only raised the temperature with Indonesian observation that “...China’s actions were especially provocative and fitted a pattern of becoming more assertive in the waters.”
Indeed a senior Indonesian official was particularly irked by China’s claims to “traditional Chinese fishing grounds” and made this strong observation: “It’s very fake, ambiguous, in terms of since when, since what year does it become historical, traditional.”
Of course with 5,000 years of Chinese history, it is a bottomless pit everyone else could fall into.
Every country, especially Asean member states, should rise to the breathtaking magnitude of China’s claims. Indonesia, not a South China Sea claimant state (something Asean non-claimant states sometimes carry as a badge of honour), was ensnared by the nine-dash line.
There could be other ramifications of China’s reach into history and traditions.
What Asean must do is to confront together the real issues of China’s claims, and not to pussy-foot around them. It should not be blinded by China’s promise of riches, as they will come at a cost, and unless they are willing to pay that cost.
Asean should also not try to pretend the South China Sea problems are problems of the claimant states alone, much less a matter between just the US and China. Asean is very much in the mix.