In the 1980s, war, even with nuclear weapons, could not be left in Asia’s back yard. After all, Southeast Asia is roughly bounded by five countries: Cambodia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.
With more than a dozen trillion dollars in bilateral trade, Asia remains the driver of global economic growth, but this time around, the superpower on the block is China. Indeed, China’s ambition to change the global geo-strategic landscape is the centerpiece of this week’s ASEAN defense ministers’ meeting in Cambodia.
So why are China’s neighbors so eager to jettison their Washington-imposed orders and become less dependent on the US? Hardly anyone has bothered to ask. The question is rarely raised because it doesn’t make sense, not for a region in which state power is an issue for keeping order, yet does pose a real threat to stability. This is the real madness of the global status quo.
The issue is that China has made gains in areas such as seaborne transport, maritime information sharing and trade connections with that outlier of a neighbor, India. If China’s influence in these areas continues to grow, the assumptions that underlie the status quo are no longer tenable.
These assumptions are that all countries have equal rights to trade and investment, that Beijing cannot buy a lasting stake in Southeast Asia through projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative, or, even more importantly, that countries will still want to maintain US military bases on their soil.
Most Asian experts will note that China’s ambitions do not threaten the security of the region or the US – just that it is exploring all available options to achieve them. Yet there is a distinct possibility that the security of each region could be threatened in the future if China is left to operate without the checks and balances of an international system that was meant to keep things in check and prevent abusive behavior.
In the past two decades, regional governments have been reluctant to acknowledge the problem in detail because they do not want to alarm the domestic constituencies that depended on the continuous presence of US military forces on the ground. They also fear that the idea of independent states and their defense obligations would not work if the people living along the seas believed that Japan, Canada or the US might invade to take their lands.
This is just plain wrong. In a changing security environment, all countries have interests at stake. Other regional nations, such as Canada and Australia, do not have any reason to fear an Indian military presence in the South China Sea. Yet the threat to their security, if even a fraction of what is being contemplated by China’s neighbors, is substantial.
These examples are merely the tip of the iceberg. If this spring the ASEAN defense ministers allow themselves to be dragged into debating China’s interest in flexing military muscle within the region, the entire region will fall prey to this logic that underpins today’s gradual, secret and very problematic militarization of Asia.