As “New Cold War” Fears Rise, China Touts Ties to Southeast Asia

(Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein bump elbows at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in October 2020, Source: Xinhua)

China is sharply critical of the US-India-Japan-Australia quadrilateral security dialogue (the Quad), and the recently launched Australia-US-UK agreement (AUKUS), charging that these evolving security groupings are destabilizing Asia and the world.  Per Beijing, “closed and exclusive cliques” (搞封闭排他的小集团, gao fengbi paitai de xiao jituan) like the Quad stem from the US and its security partners’ lingering “Cold War mentality”(冷战思维, lengzhan siwei) as opposed to China’s self-proclaimed non-hegemonic approach to world affairs that follows the path of “peaceful, open, cooperative and common development.” (和平发展、开放发展、合作发展、共同发展的道路, heping fazhan, kaifang fazhan, hezou fazhan, gongtong fazhan de daolu). (Global Times, May 19; FMRPC, March 23; Xinhua, September 22, 2020). In a retort to US President Biden’s September UN General Assembly claim that the US does not seek a new Cold War, the state-affiliated Global Times countered that Biden’s “actual policy” is to “shift culpability for the onset of the new Cold War to China and other parties.” (Global Times, September 22).

To press the case that the US and its security partners are driving a “New Cold War” in Asia, China plays on Southeast Asian states’ general anxieties over the increasingly competitive security environment in the region. Beijing has also promoted the notion that the Quad and AUKUS will supplant, rather than compliment, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) centrality in regional affairs. For example, in a September 29 call with the Foreign Ministers of Brunei and Malaysia, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi claimed that AUKUS would harm the Asia-Pacific region in five ways. Wang asserted that the defense pact: 1) heightens the risk of nuclear proliferation; 2) contributes to a regional arms race; 3) undermines regional peace and prosperity that is central to the ASEAN way; 4) violates the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty that Canberra has signed, and runs counter to the spirit of  the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone treaty; and 5) revives a Cold War mentality and ushers in an era of “geopolitical zero-sum games” (People’s Daily, September 29).

In order to draw a contrast to the US, the Quad and AUKUS, China highlights its contributions to regional prosperity through its immense trade and investment linkages with Southeast Asia, while glossing over its own destabilizing security actions in the region, particularly in the South China Sea. Chinese leaders routinely underscore that all ten ASEAN states’ have joined the Beijing-initiated Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) free trade agreement, which China asserts will accelerate Southeast Asia’s development and prosperity (China Daily, September 13). At the same time, China amplifies Southeast Asian voices that express apprehension over the Quad and AUKUS while dampening those voices raising concerns about China’s assertiveness in the region. 

Selective Amplification of AUKUS, QUAD Skepticism

The People’s Daily recently published an editorial entitled “Australia-US-UK submarine deal undermines global stability” under the penname “Warning Bell” (钟声, Zhong Sheng), which is used to denote authoritative leader-level perspectives on key international issues. The piece raises the same issues cited by Wang Yi, but also highlights Malaysia’s concerns that the provision of nuclear technology to Australia will “intensify momentum towards an arms race” (People’s Daily, October 19). This editorial echoes extensive Chinese state media articles including quotes with serving and retired Southeast Asian elites expressing their unease over AUKUS. For example, in an interview with the Global Times, retired Singaporean diplomat and academic Kishore Mahbubani states that there are “fundamental concerns” over whether AUKUS “violates the nonproliferation regime.” (Global Times, October 12). In September, Xinhua quoted Malaysia’s Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s warning that AUKUS could stoke tensions in Asia, as well as former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s comment that the move was an “escalated threat” to the region (Xinhua, September 24). These accounts neglect to mention Malaysia’s unease with China’s assertiveness in the region, including that Kuala Lumpur has lodged complaints with the UN Convention on Law of the Sea contesting the legal justification for China’s sweeping South China Sea (SCS) claims (Nikkei, July 30, 2020).

An ‘Asian-Style Approach’ to International Relations

China has held up its relations with ASEAN and its ten member states as a positive model for international politics and an alternative to “Cold War” style security groupings like the Quad and AUKUS, which Beijing perceives as a challenge to its bid for regional primacy. Foreign Minster Wang Yi, in remarks to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the establishment of China-ASEAN relations, stated that China and ASEAN have “embarked on a path of unity and win-win cooperation” and “have carried forward an Asian-style approach to relations and continued good-neighborly friendship.” (FMPRC, October 8). To drive home this point, Wang emphasized China and ASEAN’s deep economic ties, highlighting large-scale Chinese investment in regional infrastructure through the Belt and Road Initiative, and enormous trade flows that RCEP will only further.

Wang’s praise for China-ASEAN ties should be read as more than mere bromides. In a departure from China’s previous neo-Westphalian approach to international diplomacy, which was based on rigid deference to state sovereignty, China under Xi has adopted a Sino-centric approach to diplomacy predicated on asserting its “international discourse power” (国际话语权, discourse power, guoji huayu quan) and “telling the China story well” (讲好中国故事) (Xinhua, December 29, 2016) Although concepts such as discourse power predate Xi’s leadership tenure, they have assumed added importance under his leadership, and have been broadly encapsulated under the rubric of “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy”  (习近平外交思想). Xi’s approach to diplomacy is characterized more by Chinese exceptionalism and idealism than the traditional realist approach to foreign affairs followed by his predecessors (China Media Project, August 8). In contrast to what it portrays as the US’s Cold War, zero-sum approach to diplomacy,  China has sought to advance alternative concepts for regional and global politics, claiming its foreign relations are predicated on “win-win cooperation” (合作共赢, hezuo gongying) and wide consultation, joint contribution, and shared benefits (共商、共建、共享 (gongshang, gongjian, gongxiang) (NBR, January, 2020; Xinhua, November 6, 2020).

Rhetoric versus Reality

Although China is quick to claim it is a new type of great power that eschews power politics, its actions in the region often contradict that premise. Along with its long-running militarization of the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, China’s recent lack of transparency regarding its potential military activity in Cambodia violates Beijing’s commitments under its 2003 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN, wherein China and ASEAN agreed to a “strategic partnership for peace and prosperity” that “is non-aligned, non-military, and non-exclusive, and does not prevent the participants from developing their all-directional ties of friendship and cooperation with others.” (CSIS, October 12; People’s Daily, October 9, 2003). In response to US concerns that China’s recent construction activities at Ream Naval Base in Southern Cambodia are intended to facilitate a Chinese military presence in the country, Beijing stated its relationship with Cambodia had made “made positive contributions to regional peace and stability” (AP News, June 3). Nevertheless, China’s growing security footprint in the region demonstrates that Beijing bears much of the culpability for the region’s increasingly fraught security environment. Likewise, Beijing lashing out against “exclusive cliques” like the QUAD or AUKUS and its promotion of non-alignment is contradicted by  China’s own efforts to build its own web of security partnerships to counterbalance the networked security architecture that the US and its allies and partners are building in the region. The underlying wariness of ASEAN’s leading states, e.g. Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, toward China’s motives, along with Beijing’s clientelist relationship with Cambodia and other weak states in the region, only serves to underscore this reality.

John S. Van Oudenaren is Editor-in-Chief of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, please reach out to him at: [email protected].