Ian Storey: China, ASEAN, bilateral relations, maritime boundary claims, diaspora

Interview by: Leonhardt van Efferink (March 2012) Tags: China ASEAN bilateral relations maritime boundary claims diaspora Chinese trade and investment ties South Sea security People’s Liberation Army PLA

Ian Storey

Ian Storey

Book cover Ian Storey

Dr. Ian Storey is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore.

He received his PhD from the City University of Hong Kong, his Master’s degree from the International University of Japan, and his BA from the University of Hull, England.

Dr Storey specializes in Asian security issues, with a focus on Southeast Asia. At ISEAS he is the editor of the academic journal Contemporary Southeast Asia, and is currently working on a book on China’s defence diplomacy in Southeast Asia.

His research interests include Southeast Asia’s relations with China and the United States, maritime security in the Asia Pacific, and China’s foreign and defence policies. He has a particular interest in the South China Sea dispute.

Dr Storey has published articles in various journals and magazines and is a regular contributor to the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief and Singapore’s largest circulation English-language newspaper The Straits Times.

This is the first part of the interview about his new book “Southeast Asia and the Rise of China: The Search for Security”. The second part is:

Ian Storey: China, Asia-Pacific, US military capabilities, hegemony, balance of power

Dr Storey can be reached at: please click here to open up new message window

China’s interests in South East Asia

What are China’s main interests in South East Asia? Which interests does China share with (some) South East Asian countries?

“Over the past two decades the volume of trade between China and the ten ASEAN countries has expanded rapidly such that by 2010 the PRC was the region’s largest single trade partner after the EU.”

China’s primary interests in Southeast Asia are economic.

Over the past two decades the volume of trade between China and the ten ASEAN countries has expanded rapidly such that by 2010 the PRC was the region’s largest single trade partner after the EU. China imports electronic components, commodities and energy resources from the region and exports manufactured goods.

With a population of over 600 million, Southeast Asia represents an important market for Chinese companies. A free trade agreement between the two sides came into effect in 2010 and has facilitated the expansion of trade and investment ties.

China also has significant political interests in the region. Southeast Asian countries are some of China’s closest geographical neighbours, and Beijing seeks to nurture friendly and cooperative relations with them, especially those along its borders.

Since the late 1990s China has also become an active participant in the various ASEAN-centered multilateral forums such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) and the East Asia Summit (EAS). Participation in these forums provides China with a platform to promote its “peaceful development” thesis and exercise leadership.

“China also has important security interests in Southeast Asia including sea lane security through the South China Sea, and combating transnational security threats such as piracy, transborder crime and the spread of infectious diseases.”

China also has important security interests in Southeast Asia including sea lane security through the South China Sea, and combating transnational security threats such as piracy, transborder crime and the spread of infectious diseases.

The most contentious issue in Sino-Southeast Asian relations lies in the security sphere: China has contested territorial and maritime boundary claims in the South China Sea with four ASEAN members (Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei) and this problem continues to generate tensions in the overall relationship.

In some ways Southeast Asia is China’s backyard and it is keen to reduce the influence of other Great Powers, especially the United States.

Relations between South East Asian countries and China

What are the most common perceptions among South East Asian countries of China’s recent rise?

“Among the ten ASEAN members there is a wide spectrum of opinion concerning the rise of China.”

Among the ten ASEAN members there is a wide spectrum of opinion concerning the rise of China.

Those countries which have overlapping claims with Beijing in the South China Sea have been unnerved by China’s increasingly assertive behaviour in the maritime domain, as well as the rapid modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Even non-claimant members of ASEAN, such as Indonesia and Singapore, have also expressed concern at the deteriorating situation in the South China Sea and the prospect for conflict and instability.

“On balance, Southeast Asian countries perceive that China’s economic growth has greatly benefited their economies and recognize the need to pursue closer economic ties.”

The countries of mainland Southeast Asia (Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos) have a more relaxed attitude towards China’s rising power as there are few outstanding security issues with the PRC.

On balance, however, Southeast Asian countries perceive that China’s economic growth has greatly benefited their economies and recognize the need to pursue closer economic ties. As China rises, however, the ASEAN states want to see a stable balance of power among the Great Powers in the Asia-Pacific region, with the United States playing the role of key balancer.

How does the Chinese diaspora in countries such as Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand affect relations between their host countries and China?

“Over the past few decades, the Chinese diaspora in the region have played a very important role in facilitating the growth of trade and investment links between the PRC and Southeast Asia.”

Over the past few decades, the Chinese diaspora in the region have played a very important role in facilitating the growth of trade and investment links between the PRC and Southeast Asia, especially in the early years of China’s “opening up” to the outside world in the 1980s.

However, China has not attempted to utilize the overseas Chinese in a political role as this is a sensitive issue in some Southeast Asia countries.

Why are bilateral relations in Asia much more important than multilateral ones?

“ASEAN lacks the institutional strength of organizations such as the European Union. Agreements covering areas such as trade and investment, transportation links, cultural exchanges and defence diplomacy are generally made bilaterally”

Most of the “heavy lifting” in Sino-Southeast Asian relations occurs bilaterally as ASEAN lacks the institutional strength of organizations such as the European Union.

Agreements covering areas such as trade and investment, transportation links, cultural exchanges and defence diplomacy are generally made bilaterally, though of course ASEAN and China have also pursued multilateral cooperation in these areas as well.

In general, while the Great Powers pay close attention to their relationship with ASEAN, bilateral relations with individual members is accorded a higher importance. This is unlikely to change in the future.

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