The security picture in the Asia-Pacific region is becoming ever more complicated as states big and small respond to China’s bid to become the region’s leader. Frictions may seem minor compared with the big-power rivalry building between China and the US, but in sum they are at least as important.
China is presenting its leadership role this partly as an “Asia for Asians” argument reminiscent of the Bandung Conference of 60 years ago when western colonialism was very much on the agenda. In the current context it is an effort to line up Asian states – however defined – against the presence of the US as an unnatural interference in Asian affairs.
Yet to the Asian states which gave birth to the original Bandung goals of keeping Asia neutral and aloof from big power rivalries – Nehru’s India and Sukarno’s Indonesia – have yet to be convinced that they are comfortable with a China-designed sphere of Asian peace and prosperity.
On the one hand they remain attracted by the prospect of China as a driver of trade and investment at a time when western markets are stagnating. Hence they have been quick to sign up to China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank initiative, with India becoming the second largest shareholder at around 7.5 percent compared with China’s 30 percent. Whether the AIIB (or indeed that other China initiative the BRICS Bank) actually make more than a modest impact on infrastructure investment remains to be seen. In much of Asia, needed infrastructure is not getting built not for lack of money but of implementation capacity and domestic political and bureaucratic obstacles as in India, Indonesia and the Philippines.
At one level, neighbors see China’s initiatives as a natural outcome of its size and financial clout. Yet at the same time it is increasingly perceived as reflecting a sense of entitlement to be Asia’s arbiter or at least to be able to override the interests of lesser neighbors – as evidenced by its aggressive actions in the South China Sea.
This is not just opportunism on Beijing’s part. It reflects a world view, promoted by Chinese versions of history as described in text books and museums, in which neighbours periodically paid tribute to the Chinese emperor. The fact that exchanges of gifts to smooth trading relations had no political significance at the time is airbrushed away in favor of a picture of loose hegemony.
The weaker neighbors thus resort to attempts to balance their commercial interests in dealing with China with their security ones which require strengthening links with the US, Japan and India.