Originally Published 2017-02-13 06:23:56 Published on Feb 13, 2017
China, ASEAN and the MSR: A southeast Asian perspective
Introduction The One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative was mooted by Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2013 to jointly build the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and the 21st century Maritime Silk Road (MSR). The Silk Road Economic Belt (SRED) links China and Europe through Central Asia and the Middle East, while the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) refers to as the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road to Pacific, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Africa through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. The MSR begins from China’s eastern coast and heads south to the Malacca Straits to Kuala Lumpur. From there it heads to Kolkata and crosses the Indian Ocean to Nairobi, Kenya. From Nairobi, it goes north to the horn of Africa and moves through the Red Sea into the Mediterranean with a stop in Athens before meeting the land-based Silk Road in Venice. Kolkata, being the point of transit prior heading to Africa is the best venue in India to speak on the MSR, symbolically speaking. The main aim of this broader OBOR initiative is for China to develop its landlocked western provinces and enable them to access the markets of Southeast Asia and the Middle East. The MSR is said to promote economic cooperation and connectivity by reviving the ancient maritime Silk Road trading route. US$40 billion has been pledged to the Silk Road Fund and China has established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to develop infrastructure along the route.<1> Chinese analysts have opined that the best way for China to build its “international reputation” is by “taking on more responsibilities in international security” which means “providing the entire world and all regions with more public security goods”. Statistics will show the phenomenal growth in Chinese economic engagements with Southeast Asian nations, but statistics and foreign policy announcements alone are not enough to change China from a repressive to a responsible leader.  It would take more confidence building than just ‘charm offensives.’ Beijing hopes that through policies such as the MSRwould mend and improve its security relations with Southeast Asian countries. However, in light of China’s past unfulfilled promises like the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties (DOC) and the China-ASEAN Maritime Fund, China’s charm offensive will require pragmatism. With the challenges China is facing globally and in the region, especially the current maritime issues in the South China Sea, the majority of ASEAN members, most being maritime countries, want to see more concrete actions. President Xi Jinping wishes to vigorously develop maritime partnership with ASEAN in a joint effort to build the MSR may be problematic if considered from a security perspective. The security imperatives of the MSR are discussed here in the backdrop of Chinese assertive actions in regional maritime security and resource security perspectives. Before we delve further into the MSR, it may be useful to discuss China-Southeast ties in maritime trade. . Controlling Maritime Trade Historically, despite the huge influence over Southeast Asia, China never colonised the region. As early as the 3rd Century AD, Southeast Asia was the bridge for trade between two great kingdoms, China and India. Trade winds brought about trade that was so rife it intermingled with religion and power. Southeast Asia’s agrarian and maritime kingdoms were influenced by successful Tamil Kingdoms from South India. The Pandyas of Madurai, Pallavas of Kanchipuram and the Cholas of Tanjore had strong influence in the “indianisation” of Southeast Asia.<2> East–West trade was controlled by the silk, spice and cotton routes traversing land and sea. The Kingdom of Srivijaya (see Figure-I) thrived on its location, waterways relatively free from extreme weather and a Buddhist centre of learning for monks from China. Whilst through the centuries, trade brought about good diplomacy and the spread of religion, Srivijaya, was eventually attacked by the Imperial Cholas from India in 1025<3> due to trade rivalry. Sumatera and the Malay Peninsula were a maritime federation based on thallasocracy.<4> Maritime trade stopped at Srivijayan<5> vassal ports for trade, repairs and relaxation. In the North, Angkor was ruled by the agrarian Kamboja Kingdom and in the South, Java was ruled by the Sailendras of Mataram. Though Srivijaya was an important guardian of the trade route of that time, it was also a thriving empire in size, economy and a renowned Buddhist centre of learning, rivaling China. It has been largely suspected that China had a hand in influencing Chola to attack Srivijaya for fear of land and sea routes being controlled by Srivijayan vassals in the Malay Peninsula. The Sung of China’s changing trade policy reduced port visits to Srivijayan vassal states in the peninsula thus prompting these vassals to raising taxes on Indian seafarers. The growing strength of Srivijaya brought fear to Chola ally, Angkor, as Angkor’s King Suryavarman was a rival to Jayavarman in the south, ally to Srivijaya.  Figure 1: The Srivijayan Empire 1a Source: The Srivijayan Kingdom never regained the glorious past after the attack and was later subdivided among the neighbouring kingdoms. Srivijayan prince Parameswara established the Malacca Kingdom in the 1400s and China played its role again in controlling the Straits of Malacca through marriage alliances and trade with Malacca.   Ironically, through the centuries, though Southeast Asia was politically influenced by Indian kingdoms, the kingdoms of Southeast Asia had a tributary system which paid tribute to China and not India. This goes to show that China had an economic stronghold on Southeast Asia though not politically or physically colonizing Southeast Asia. Trade played an important part before and it will continue to play a part in the diplomatic and economic engagements in Southeeast Asia. ASEAN and China’s ‘Charm Offensives’ In January 1974, China seized the paracels after the United States pulled out of South Vietnam. 50 Vietnamese sailors lost their lives. In 1988, China overran Vietnamese occupied Johnson Reef where 70 Vietnamese military personnel were killed. In light of the backlash by ASEAN, China proposed a Free Trade Area with ASEAN in 2000. In 2002, the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties (DOC) was signed between China and ASEAN. ASEAN’s first declaration on the South China Sea was issued in 1992, but it was not until ASEAN and Chinese officials met in Cambodia in November 2002 that an agreement was reached on the need for guidance on implementing the declaration on the conduct (DOC) of the parties in the South China Sea. The DOC was essentially a compromise between the two positions of doing nothing and having a legally-binding agreement. The text of the DOC clearly reveals three purposes: promoting confidence-building measures, engaging in practical maritime cooperation, and setting the stage for the discussion and conclusion of a formal and binding COC. However, the DOC did not fully implement all the three purposes. Not a single claimant state strictly abided by the DOC, though violations of the clauses in the DOC varied from country to country. After the conclusion of the DOC, only very few instances of bilateral or multilateral cooperative projects took place in the South China Sea. The DOC itself was intrinsically flawed because it did not have the legal power to restrain any claimant party’s behaviour in the South China Sea. The DOC lacked the mechanism to monitor, let alone enforce, compliance. China was intent to ensure other ASEAN members stall reclamation works while China went ahead in massive reconstruction projects and further securitising South China Sea. China clearly did not have much interest in the DOC process and did not intend to implement the DOC lest it jeopardises its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. China took nine years to issue guidelines on the DOC which came out in 2011. Throughout the 2000s, China became more assertive in South China Sea including increasing military and law enforcement capabilities. In 2007, China halted a number of foreign oil and gas exploration companies to stop joint exploration in Vietnamese waters. China threatened that they will face consequences if these foreign companies do business in China. In 2008, China Maritime Surveillance agency conducted regular patrols in the South China Sea telling the world that they were only ‘policing’ the waters while they were building airstrips and offshore stations in the ‘nine dashed line’. In 2010, China placed a sovereignty marker on James Shoal, the southernmost point of China’s claim, offshore Sarawak in Malaysia. In 2011, during the ASEAN-China Summit in Bali, Indonesia, China proposed the setting up of the 3 million RMB (or $484 million) China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund.<6> The fund was aimed at promoting cooperation between China and ASEAN in maritime technology and environmental protection, connectivity, navigation safety and rescue, as well as transnational crime. To date, no guideline has been issued on the fund nor has there been any news on the funds being used for the intended purposes. In 2012, China seized Scarborough shoal off the Philippines and in the same year, established the Sansha Prefecture on Woody Island as a response to Vietnamese National Maritime Law. Sansha (or "Three Sands") refers to the three most important disputed geographic features of the South China Sea-the Paracels and Spratlys island groups, and the completely submerged Macclesfield Bank that China calls, respectively as the Xisha, Nansha and Zhongsha islands.  Sansha is to assume nominal administrative control over the former county-level administrative office based on Hainan Island, its southernmost province. Figure 3: Sansha Prefecture 1b Source: In 2013, China announced the establishment of the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea and declared the Hainan Fishing Zone. Figure 4: The Hainan Fishing Zone 1c Source: Both the ADIZ and the HFZ were unilateral and aimed at extending the legal basis for China’s claim to land features and maritime zones in the East and South China Seas. Hainan province’s new fishing regulations required all foreign vessels that seek to fish or conduct surveys in waters claimed by China to obtain advance approval from the “relevant and responsible department” under the Cabinet. Hainan province claims administrative responsibility over Hainan Island, the Xisha (Paracel) archipelago, Zhongsha (Macclesfield Bank) archipelago, the Nansha (Spratly) archipelago “and their dependent waters.” These dependent waters stretch approximately two million square kilometers or roughly 57 percent of the 3.6 million square kilometers enclosed in China’s nine-dash line claim over the South China Sea. Foreign fishing boats and survey vessels that refuse to comply would be either forced out of the area or boarded, impounded and subject to a fine of up to $83,000. Hainan province authorities also assert the right to confiscate the fish catches it finds on the boats that it seizes. In 2014, China deployed the super oil rig HYSY-981 off Vietnam. China declared a 3 nautical mile security radius around the oil rig, far exceeding the 500 metre safety zone state parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea are entitled to under that treaty. China deployed maritime militias, coast guard ships, and a limited number of People’s Liberation Army Navy assets to protect the waters around HD-981. In an incident, a Vietnamese fishing boat capsized after colliding with a Chinese fishing boat. In 2015, satellite pictures emerged as to the extent of Chinese reclamation works in the South China Sea. Massive areas were reclaimed and airstrips built on many offshore stations.  China’s actions divided ASEAN even further.  The US, in the continued push for Freedom of Navigation and Overflights continued to put the pressure on China’s assertiveness in South China Sea. Seen as a wedge between China and ASEAN, China has taken new charm offensives to implement her grand design to safeguard her claims and ensure the US is kept out of the ASEAN-China game. China - Maintaining Strategic Intent In the 1990s after the Tiananmen Square massacre, China faced a number of economic and arms sanctions. China came to realise that for it to be a legitimate power, it has to reestablish itself in the international arena and that political issues like civil liberty movements, the restive Xinjiang Muslim province and the democratic overtures in Taiwan, may bring more humiliation to China in the coming years. China was poised to regain Hong Kong to motherland in 1997 after 156 years of British rule and Macau in 1999, reverted to Chinese sovereignty after 442 years of Portuguese rule, ending the last remaining dependent state in Asia and the final vestige of European colonialism.. China needs fossil fuel and gas to power its massive industries. New areas need to be explored and sealanes need to be safeguarded. China cannot remain in a state of conundrum politically and diplomatically and cannot relive another century of humiliation brought about during the Opium Wars. China had to find ways and means to continue to stay relevant as a growing economic superpower. For this the nine dashed line was a priority. In 2002, at the 16th Party Congress, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) adopted a hierarchy for the four elements of diplomacy, later summarized as follows, ‘big powers as the key; the surrounding region as the priority, developing countries as foundation and multilaterals as an important platform’<7>. Deng Xiaoping’s maxim on maintaining sovereignty and foster joint development was taken a step further to ensure China engages with the region to stay relevant. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has made 6 proposals for the future development of ASEAN-China relations: First, to develop a grand strategy for the growth of ASEAN-China relations. Both sides should start formulating as early as possible the third plan of action (2016-2020) of the ASEAN-China Joint Declaration on Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity. China is willing to negotiate and conclude with ASEAN a treaty of good-neighborliness, friendship and cooperation between China and ASEAN countries. Second, to build an upgraded China-ASEAN Free Trade Area (signed in November 2015). In the coming three years, China will set aside 30 million RMB (4.9 million USD) in support of economic and technical cooperation under the FTA framework; Third, to speed up the building of the basic connectivity network. The two sides may continue to jointly promote the early operation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to provide financial support to infrastructure development in the region; Fourth, to foster new highlights in maritime cooperation. China proposed 2015 be designated as the year of China-ASEAN maritime cooperation; Fifth, to ensure "double security" in traditional and nontraditional areas; Sixth, to actively explore new areas of cooperation in people-to-people exchanges, science and technology and environmental protection.<8> According to statistics from the General Administration of Customs of China, ASEAN-China two-way trade grew by 8.3% to 480.4 billion USD in 2014. China’s export to ASEAN reached 272.1 billion USD, while ASEAN’s export to China reached 208.3 billion USD. China is ASEAN’s largest trade partner, and ASEAN is China’s 3rd largest trade partner. ASEAN and China are determined to push their trade volume to 1 trillion USD by 2020. According to statistics from the Ministry of Commerce of China, ASEAN-China two-way investment totaled 12.18 billion USD from January to December 2014, in which China’s investment to ASEAN reached 5.88 billion USD, growing by 2.5% over the same period last year and ASEAN’s investment to China reached 6.3 billion USD, decreasing by 24.53%. By December 2014, ASEAN-China mutual investment total reached 126.95 billion USD, in which China’s investment to ASEAN total reached 35.21 billion USD, and ASEAN’s investment to China total reached 91.74 billion USD. In 2014, mutual tourist visits between ASEAN and mainland China reached over 17.6 million, in which mainland Chinese visiting ASEAN stood at 11.4 million and tourists from ASEAN visiting mainland China stood at 6.2 million. According to statistics from the Ministry of Education of China, in 2014, 377,054 foreign students were studying in China. The top four ASEAN countries with largest number of students in China were Thailand (21,296), Indonesia (13,689), Vietnam (10,658) and Malaysia (6,645). Both sides set two-way investment goal at 150 billion USD from 2013 to 2020<9> Conclusion In the final analysis, as China pushes with its MSR initiativeit will balance geopolitics and geo-economics to ensure it is not outmaneuver by the US. Many ASEAN nations see the need to balance China, economically with the security might of the US. The Chinese intent, through the MSR, is to protect it interest in safeguarding the sea lanes and resources Though ASEAN acknowledges China’s might in the traditional security sphere and the need to counter balance it with the US. ASEAN acknowledges China’s ability to deploy Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR) during the recent MH370 incidents, Typhoon Haiyan, the earthquake in Nepal and the floods in Malaysia. All these are testimony to China’s commitment in the non-traditional security sphere. The MSR, though seen as a charm offensive, has huge strategic implications and nations should be cognizant of their country’s strategic interests and avoid finding themselves compromising them as they embrace economic benefits of Chinese MSR. This article was originally published in GP-ORF’s ‘Emerging Trans-Regional corridors: South and Southeast Asia
<1> Zhao Hong, The Maritime Silk Road And China-Southeast Asia Relations, Institute Of Southeast Asian Studies July, 2015. <2> I. W. Mabbett, “The 'Indianization' of Southeast Asia: Reflections on the Historical Sources”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Sep., 1977). <3> O.W. Wolters, The Fall of Srivijaya in Malay History, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970). <4> The term thalassocracy (from Greek language thalassa, meaning ‘sea’, and kratein, meaning ‘to rule’, giving thalassokratia, ‘rule of the sea’ refers to a state with primarily maritime realms—an empire at sea, such was the Srivijayan Empire. <5> George Coedes, Le Royaume de Crivijaya, BEFEO 18, No 6, 1918. <6> Cai Penghong, “China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation: Process, Motivation, and Prospects”, CIIS, September 25, 2015 at http://www.ciis.org.cn/english/2015-09/25/content_8265850.htm <7> “China’s Regional Grand Strategy Paves The Way for Realising the China Dream”, Asia Pacific Regional Security Assessment 2015, pp. 77-90. <8> Ibid <9> ASEAN-China Relations, ASEAN-China Centre (ACC). ACC is supervised and advised by the Joint Executive Board (JEB). The JEB comprises the ASEAN Committee in Beijing (ACB), which is composed of 10 ASEAN Ambassadors to China, and representatives from related Chinese agencies.
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