China’s interest in Southeast Asia:
China’s policy towards Southeast Asia can be termed as one of competition and colloboration. Traditional determinants like geography, cold war ideology, domestic and ethnic politics have been the binding factors in China-Southeast Asia relations. Placing the relations China had exerted its influence over the region and the principal manifestation was the tributary system, which reflected the subordinate status of others in the region.
Post 1949 China emulated the role of a crusader and a champion of third world freedom and assisted revolutionary communist movements and insurgent groups. With the Sino-Soviet rivalry in late 1960s, China had to reassess its ideological leanings. The death of Mao Tse Tung and the ascendancy of Deng Xiaoping to power, brought in a paradigm shift in China-Southeast Asia relations.
China’s assurance to the Southeast Asian countries after the 1997 financial crisis, refurbished China’s image amongst the Southeast Asian Country. China’s emphasis on economic modernisation and regional stability, assured the Southeast Asian countries that China would no longer be a threat in the region. An ernest effort undertaken by China to re-assure and re-emphasise its position with the Southeast Asian countries.
Thus Southeast Asia house great powers competing for economic and strategic benefits. This has constantly compelled the ASEAN countries to choose between the regional challenger and the dominant power.The Southeast Asian countries often are tossed between the heavy weights, nevertheless they are coping with their own strategies and interest in identifying and engaging with India, Japan, US and China.
Asymmetry in relationship between China and Southeast Asia exists. China’s exerts high influence in the Mainland Southeast Asia which comprises of Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. All these countries in some form or the other is dependent and remain a soft underbelly of China. China maintain unique relations with each of the countries in the region.
Myanmar is critical from the perspective of “client state”, While in the case of Cambodia and Laos, China plays the role of a dominant external actor. Vietnam-China relations continues to remain complex and there are completing claims between the two countries. Vietnam has protested the recent deployment of advanced missile system on a disputed South China Sea island and has condemned this erroneous action of China.
China rarely resonates historical tributary system with maritime Southeast Asia.Interestingly the maritime countries in Southeast Asia Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia of these several of them enjoy the patronage of Untied States thus posing a constant challenges to China. Competing and overlapping claims continues to exist between China and maritime Southeast Asian countries on the issue of South China Sea.
Countries in dispute have wrangled over the territory for centuries and there is a steady increase of tension. China by and large have claimed the largest portion of the territory. The recent deployment of China’s advanced missile system which is claimed purely as a self-defence mechanism is not viewed as a benign advancement. United States has called for tangible steps to reduce tension in the region.
How could India strategies its Southeast Asian Interest:
India’s engagement in Southeast Asia was accelerated with the announcement of India’s Look East Policy in the 1990s. With increased bilateral operation in areas of trade and commerce, people to people contact and capital flow. India-ASEAN partnership has been upgraded to areas of strategic partnership. The enhanced India’s engagement in the region is welcomed by the Southeast Asian countries, as a counter check against growing China’s assertiveness in the region. India’s Act East strategy is an initiative to expand Indian diplomacy and an initiative to involve the large Indian diaspora present in the region.
The Look East Policy was an initiative started by the Late Prime Minister Narasimha Rao which focused on economic engagement with ASEAN countries and India. Southeast Asia connects Indian and the Pacific Oceans that includes vital maritime chokepoint and hence extremely critical from India’s geo-strategic interest and hence India works to evolve a peaceful regional order. India has interestingly maritime borders with three Southeast Asian countries Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia. Interestingly India has no unilateral or hegemonic policy towards the region.
US President Obama has urged India to an Act East Asia policy . Several joint statements have been released both by India and Untied states calling for safeguarding maritime security, freedom of navigation and countering piracy and maritime terrorism. The ASEAN countries along with United States have welcomed India’s participation in there region. They have legitimised India’s status as a great power in Asia and looks forward for India’s support in maintatining the regional order and stability
The Southeast Asian countries see India as a great power and calls for more proactive engagement from the Indian side. This is indeed a great opportunity for India, how much will the political leadership encapsulate the opportunity to shape Asia is something that has to be seen.
Priya Suresh is a research scholar @Takshashila Institute. She tweets@priyamanassa