Explained | China’s military diplomacy in Southeast Asia

What is causing China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia? How does the Global Security Initiative challenge the ASEAN countries? Why is the increasing proximity of the U.S. with the Philippines worrisome for China?

May 31, 2023 09:31 pm | Updated 09:31 pm IST

The story so far: Due to its intensifying geopolitical competition with the U.S. and its own security interests in the region, China is expanding its military outreach to Southeast Asian countries. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s global activities and influence campaigns are part of its broader reform process initiated by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2015, and form a fundamental element of China’s overall foreign policy. In this light, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has become a priority target for the People’s Liberation Army’s military diplomacy.

What is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) currently undertaking?

The PLA and the Laotian People’s Armed Forces (LPAF) have recently concluded their bilateral military exercise, Friendship Shield 2023. The drills aim to foster interoperability to effectively “counter transnational armed criminal groups based in jungles and mountains.” This week-long exercise comes on the heels of Laos’ Foreign Affairs Minister Saleumxay Kommasith’s visit to China last month. The PLA Southern Theatre Command (PLA STC) is leading a massive delegation to the LPAF’s Kommadam Academy for the exercise.

This includes 200 troops from the 75th Group Army’s combined-arms brigade, assault vehicles such as the 4x4 MRAP Dongfeng CSK141 (Mengshi), as well as equipment for maritime replenishment, mine clearance, explosive disposal, and epidemic prevention.

Before this, in 2023, the PLA STC conducted the ‘Golden Dragon’ drills with Cambodia from late March to early April. This too came on the heels of a high-level meeting held between Zhang Youxia, Vice-Chairman of the Chinese Central Military Commission (CMC) and the army commander of the Royal Cambodian Army, Hong Manai, in February this year.

The drills saw the participation of over 200 troops from the PLA STC’s Army, the Navy, and the Logistical Support Force, who arrived in Cambodia aboard a Type 071 comprehensive landing vehicle, Jinggangshan. The exercise entailed joint anti-terrorism and humanitarian aid operations.

A few weeks later, in late April, the PLA STC conducted a joint exercise with the Singaporean Navy. Both sides deployed minesweepers (PLA Chibi and RSS Intrepid) and frigates (PLA Yulin and RSS Punggol) for shore and sea operations.

All of these joint military endeavours were preceded by a visit from a working group of the Chinese Ministry of National Defence to Laos, Vietnam and Brunei, where the two sides discussed “the relationship between the two militaries and regional security issues of common concern”.

These are a few of the many instances of China’s military diplomacy with Southeast Asian countries. And in the past couple of months, the frequency of Chinese military drills with its ASEAN partners appears to have increased for two primary reasons. Firstly, Xi Jinping has put excessive emphasis on defence diplomacy under his flagship Global Security Initiative (GSI).

Second, China’s threat perception of expanding the United States military engagement with countries in the Asia-Pacific region, especially those countries that China has disputes with in the South and East China Seas region.

How does the GSI challenge the ASEAN’s cohesiveness?

The GSI invited varied responses from the ASEAN, which reflect the classic divergences in intra-association stances on bandwagoning and hedging between China and the U.S. First, in November 2022, during the ASEAN-China Summit in Cambodia, all parties cautiously agreed to “take note of the GSI proposed by China with core elements consistent with the principles and spirit of the Treaty of Amity,” and “looked forward to further details of the GSI.”

Over the past few months, the divergences have become visible. As per ISEAS’s ‘State of Southeast Asia Survey 2023’, on average, 27% of those surveyed in the 10 ASEAN place confidence in the GSI. However, of those surveyed in countries such as Cambodia and Brunei, nearly 50% are confident about the Initiative. On the other hand, of those surveyed in countries such as Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar, well over 50% place little to no confidence in it.

These figures, alone, however, are not enough to determine how ASEAN countries are responding to China’s expanding comprehensive national power. For example, China’s heavy Belt and Road investments have been welcomed by Indonesia. Moreover, despite tensions in the South China Sea, Indonesia has been proactively applauding Chinese support in the advancement of its vaccine programme and its high-speed rail network.

Similarly, despite Vietnam’s mistrust of the GSI, analysts suggest that it maintains a relatively neutral stance in its relations with China, which indicates that there is neither rapid progress nor significant deterioration in bilateral relations. This may be because a cautious Vietnam may not want to invite hostility from a significantly larger power in its neighbourhood. Additional factors may include shared socialist values between the central committees of the Communist Parties of Vietnam (CPV) and China (CPC), as well as the success of the Sino-Vietnamese ‘Two Corridors and One Economic Circle’ Belt and Road project.

On the other hand, in Myanmar, despite a majority of observers placing little to no confidence in the GSI, China is making political, military and economic inroads. Since the takeover of the junta, the development of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor has only accelerated, while new satellite imagery is showing China building a surveillance military base on Great Coco Islands in Myanmar. This also impacts India because the Great Coco Islands lie just 55 km north of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and their militarisation by China poses a strategic threat to India’s national security.

Why is the Philippines’ tilt to the U.S. worrisome for China?

China continues to face competition from the U.S. in its bid to establish a sphere of influence over Southeast Asia. The increasing proximity of the U.S. with the Philippines, with whom China shares a disputed maritime border in the Luzon Strait in the South China Sea, is worrisome for China. What has perhaps recently irked China the most is the Philippines’ decision to provide the U.S. with access to four military bases in addition to the five bases the U.S. already had access to, under the 2014 Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement between the two sides.

China has accordingly structured the message around its exercises with Cambodia, Singapore, and Laos as a warning to the Philippines, with a Chinese military commentator Fu Qinghao saying that these exercises “make a model for other countries in the region, including the Philippines, which has been leaning toward the U.S.”

To add fuel to the fire, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said that “tensions across the Taiwan Straits seem to be continuing to increase, and so these EDCA sites will also prove to be useful for us should that terrible occurrence come about”.

Of course, in tandem with other leaders hedging in the ASEAN, Marcos has since clarified that Washington “cannot use bases in his country for ‘offensive action’ against China in the event of a conflict over Taiwan.” This does not, however, change the fact that the bases are advantageous for the U.S. during an offensive against China, as they help fulfil purposes such as refuel and resupply for warships, intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR), and blocking Chinese trade through critical chokepoints in the South China Sea.

To defend its claims and interests in the region, China is likely to pursue both aggressive military posturing and diplomacy in Southeast Asia. In early May, for example, Chinese surveillance vessel Xiang Yang Hong 10, accompanied by a contingent of eight other maritime vessels, attempted to intimidate the navies of India and ASEAN countries engaged in the first edition of a multilateral naval drill in the South China Sea. Satellite intelligence also shows China preparing a new naval base in the Ream region of Cambodia.

However, despite China’s military and economic inroads in the region, it needs to prove to ASEAN countries sitting on the fence that it has the capability to exercise restraint and act in accordance with the provisions of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (which is yet to come into force).

This is also essential for it to win the ASEAN’s confidence for the GSI, which will otherwise, and for good reason, continue to cautiously hedge and balance between American and Chinese influence operations in the region.

(Anushka Saxena is a research analyst with Takshashila Institution’s Indo-Pacific Studies Programme)

THE GIST
Due to its intensifying geopolitical competition with the U.S. and its own security interests in the region, China is expanding its military outreach to Southeast Asian countries.
China continues to face competition from the U.S. in its bid to establish a sphere of influence over Southeast Asia. The increasing proximity of the U.S. with the Philippines, with whom China shares a disputed maritime border in the Luzon Strait in the South China Sea, is worrisome for China.
China has structured the message around its exercises with Cambodia, Singapore, and Laos as a warning to the Philippines, with a Chinese military commentator Fu Qinghao saying that these exercises “make a model for other countries in the region, including the Philippines, which has been leaning toward the U.S.”
0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in

Comments

Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.