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The China Factor in Southeast Asia’s Arms Spree

by Joshua Kurlantzick
February 1, 2010

On the surface, Southeast Asia in 2010 appears relatively peaceful. The saber-rattling between Thailand and Cambodia over a disputed border temple appears to be dying down, and internal conflicts in Papua and southern Thailand, though hardly dormant, have at least seen the level of bloodshed decrease over the past year. Yet as highlighted in a long article Thursday in the Financial Times, many Southeast Asian nations have gone on arms-buying sprees. Vietnam last year bought new submarines and fighter jets from Russia, which has re-emerged as a major arms seller in the region. Thailand recently bought its own new stock of fighter jets, from Sweden. Burma’s junta plans to buy a new round of fighters and attack helicopters from Russia.

The factor linking together these purchases, as the Financial Times notes, is China. In many ways, China’s strategy in Southeast Asia, the first region of the world where it has achieved predominance, or at least parity with the United States, has been masterful. For nearly ten years, following the Asian financial crisis, China managed to build its power in Southeast Asia without sparking the kind of backlash one might have expected, especially since many countries in the region, like Vietnam, have long and painful histories of conflict with China. To take one example, while protestors in Thailand besieged a hotel where American and Thai officials were trying to negotiate a free trade deal, which ultimately collapsed, there was little public reaction in Thailand to the Asean-China Free Trade Agreement – which came into existence early in Thailand.

But China is now in some ways a victim of its past success. Because it had incessantly promised win-win diplomacy and adherence to the principle of noninterference, as China has become more aggressive – and interfering – toward countries in the region, Southeast Asian leaders begin to call out Beijing for its hypocrisy. They are right: Over the past year, China clearly has become more aggressive in Southeast Asia (as it has in other parts of the world, since the financial crisis clearly has given Beijing confidence while weakening the Western powers). Over the past year, Beijing has bolstered its claims in the South China Sea by sending significant ships into the region to show the flag, setting up the Paracel Islands as tourism destinations which probably would require a build-up of infrastructure, and more forcefully advocating its claims to offshore petroleum in the South China Sea. It has hardly listened to Thai and Vietnamese complaints about dumping from southern China. It has pushed Southeast Asian leaders to cut their informal ties to Taiwan. It has publicly criticized the Burmese government’s offensive against ethnic minority militias, some of which have close ties to China. It has mostly ignored a rising tide of public resentment in Southeast Asia over Chinese investment, which often comes along with Chinese workers shipped in from the People’s Republic.

All this doesn’t mean Southeast Asian nations are gearing up for war with China. They’re not that dumb; and, there are domestic reasons (i.e. keeping the army happy) in many of these nations for the big arms-buys. But Beijing shouldn’t just ignore Southeast Asia’s new weapons purchases. They are signs, however blunt, that China’s charm offensive is fading.

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