NOVEMBER 11 is a day that will live in infamy for many in the Asia Pacific.
With Donald Trump’s ascent to the highest office in Washington on the back of his narrow-minded and appallingly simplistic “America First” trope, many countries in the region have been scrambling for the exit signs and hinting at their desire to deepen ties with China.
Decades of U.S. policy planning to win the hearts and minds of Southeast Asia seem to have gone out the window over the span of a few days. And Trump’s election could not have come at a worse time, as China’s forceful crackdown on Hong Kong’s autonomy shows how far Beijing is from being a responsible global actor.
The so-called “Oathgate”, involving China’s banning of two pro-independence lawmakers from joining the legislature is nothing short of a complete reversal of its policy of relative non-intervention in Hong Kong’s affairs.
The former British colony was guaranteed a “high degree of autonomy” when it was transferred from British to Chinese control in 1997. After two decades of using a fairly hands-off approach, tolerating protests, pro-democracy demonstrations, and tabloid journalism about political leaders, Beijing drew a line in the sand earlier in November.
Since then, Hong Kong has seen large demonstrations protesting Beijing’s involvement in the matter. Observers have suggested that the intervention could even reignite 2014’s Umbrella Revolution.
The uproar left Xi Jinping unfazed. A conversation between Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and the Chinese president on the sidelines of the recent APEC summit in Peru was ominous. “Very simply put and very forcefully, the president said there is no room whatsoever for Hong Kong independence under the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement,” Leung told the media after the 45-minute long meeting.
Observers have long warned that under Xi, China was at risk of returning to personal dictatorship, but such fears were merely based on the president’s slow accumulation of power and aggressive anti-corruption fight.
An influential essay by renowned expert Andrew J. Nathan made that case back in May, arguing that despite expectations of liberalisation, Xi has been taking more and more cues from Chairman Mao Zedong. In some ways, Xi has personally taken on even more of China’s daily policy operations than Mao ever did. Suggestions of a return to an authoritarian past have fueled concern among China’s neighbors that Beijing’s policies and slowing economy will increasingly reflect nationalism rather than liberalisation and reform. U.S. President Barack Obama even noted in his interviews with Jeffrey Goldberg that China would “resort to nationalism as an organising principle” as a last ditch attempt to offset rising dissatisfaction at home.
Oathgate, alongside a series of similar moves in the region, show that Beijing’s embrace of nationalism is slowly becoming a reality with the consequence of tearing apart the system of alliances in the Asia Pacific.
In the South China Sea, China has taken advantage of its influence in Laos and Cambodia to undermine relations between ASEAN members. These two countries, who themselves have no territorial claims in the South China Sea, signed a statement agreeing that disputes there will not affect relations with China. This essentially prevented ASEAN from taking a stronger public stance against Chinese claims on the territories of other ASEAN nations in the region. It’s no wonder Laos and Cambodia have been called China’s “Trojan horses” in Southeast Asia.
The statement that ASEAN eventually released was watered down, bowing to Chinese pressure to not mention a recent court ruling that supported a complaint lodged against Beijing by the Philippines. The decision by the U.N. supported Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that China’s nine-dash line, which it argues supports its claims over roughly 90 percent of the South China Sea, has no legal basis.
Folding to Chinese pressure late last month, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed a host of bilateral agreements with China, and agreed to resume direct talks over the South China Sea dispute. For its part, Malaysia has played it safe, maintaining good relations with China even in the face of incursion into its territorial waters.
Meanwhile, sentiment in many ASEAN countries is growing increasingly resentful of Chinese incursions, as these countries are left to conclude that China’s rise has become more aggressive than peaceful. Vietnam, where 2014 protests against China moving an oil rig into Vietnamese waters grew violent, is an example of how quickly ASEAN countries can reach a breaking point in terms of Chinese encroachment – even after demonstrating a great deal of plasticity on the matter. Such blowback can have negative consequences for Beijing’s ambitions.
In Australia, China has been expanding its influence by buying property, and by funneling political donations through Australian businesses with connections to China. The University of Technology, Sydney’s Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI) was founded in 2014 through a donation of almost AU$2 million from Chinese businessman Xiangmo Huang.
China has also made bids to invest in critical infrastructure such as an electricity distributor in New South Wales. Looking to infuse the large Chinese-Australian diaspora, Beijing has bought all the Chinese-language media sites in the country well as land, even leasing the port of Darwin in the Northern Territory. Earlier this year, Australia’s decision to purchase submarines from France instead of from Japan was seen as a bow towards pressure from Beijing. Observers, especially in the U.S., were left wondering whether the decision was a blow to the longstanding trilateral U.S.-Japan-Australia alliance, while Australians themselves have grown ever more weary of constant Chinese interference.
At the end of the day, China’s aggressive moves in the region can only go so far.
In cracking down on Hong Kong’s autonomy, encroaching on Vietnam’s territorial waters, and snapping up Australian property, China will antagonise even more leaders in the Pacific region.
Maintaining in place the U.S.’ system of traditional relationships in the Asia Pacific should not even be under debate. But as long as the U.S. is not there to offset Beijing, these countries seem to have no choice.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent