China has always tried to make sure that ASEAN as a cohesive unit should not challenge China suzerainty in its near abroad.Therefore, China has tried to make roads into the ASEAN’s internal dialogue process and thereby create conflict of interest among the member countries whenever there has been a major summit meeting or an important dialogue related to security issue adversarial to Chinese interest. Ever since China became the ASEAN dialogue partner, it has cultivated a constituency of friendly nations, and build positive narrative with regard to Chinese propositions, and role in the ASEAN centred organisations. China’s strong support for ASEAN+3 process was a manifestation of China’s urge to influence the organisation. This has been seen particularly in the context so far as summit meetings are concerned. Whenever there is a discussion with regard to South China Sea (SCS) or talks related to Chinese dams on Mekong river within Mekong River Commission or even in ASEAN, the countries which are pro-China have tried to act as spoilers. In August 2020, China has called meeting of ASEAN diplomats to address its concerns with regard to US statements, and also give a signal of escalating conflict in SCS. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has earlier rejected Chinese claims in SCS, and challenged Chinese assertive posture. China criticised US and labelled it as a ‘non-regional’ country.
During the ASEAN meeting in Cambodia in the year 2012, China has tried to drive a wedge through utilising the consensus provision in ASEAN, and promoted its own interest at the cost of the unity in the organisation. The ASEAN communiqué which was not released during the Phnom Penh summit have exposed intra-ASEAN fissures. Subsequently, China tried to develop wedge between the ASEAN nations through its promise of better aid and financial assistance in developing the infrastructure for those countries which support Chinese policy and outlook. This is aimed at creating a neo-imperialist order while gaining control of major ports and infrastructure networks in Laos and Cambodia. China’s aid and assistance white papers clearly highlight the fact that how Belt and Road initiatives (BRI) projects in few countries are used as strategic lever to engage the political elite, and provide them money for their political ambitions. In the case of Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar, China has effectively utilised the aid diplomacy and even coercion in case of any protests against Chinese projects.
China had accepted the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) as a prerequisite for being admitted into ASEAN as a dialogue partner but subsequently when the tensions in South China Sea mounted it has proposed an agreement of good neighbourliness, technically proposing to sabotage TAC and replacing it with its own norms and structure. With regard to dialogue and consultations about South China Sea, China has proposed bilateral negotiations so as to thwart any institutional pressure which might be mounted if ASEAN remains united and passes regular joint statements against Chinese assertive posture in the region. This was visible when in July 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) adjudicated against Chinese claims in South China Sea and the subsequent ministerial meetings used subdued language to criticise Chinese activities. China’s diplomats went on overdrive to know about the possible response of ASEAN members, and what would be wordings in the joint statements released after the meeting.
Even with regard to finalisation of the Code of Conduct in SCS and the deliberations which are going within ASEAN with regard to negotiating with China, the internal reports have been provided to Chinese diplomats by those countries which are extremely dependent on Chinese financial assistance and have technically subscribed to Chinese strategic game plan. It has been seen that Laos which has a communist government has become a surrogate state while in the case of Cambodia the aging political leaders want a secure future for their progeny and therefore in this context the support of China is critical for their political future- both in terms of political support and finance.
China has tried to cultivate Thailand through weapons exports at friendly prices, and provided political support and assistance to the Thai military government as it was hesitant to revert to the restoring democracy in the country. In the past it has been seen that the response of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia with regard to SCS has been muted. Even lately when the Malaysia made its representation with Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in December 2019 on the issue of extended continental shelf beyond 200 nm, countries like Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia and subsequently Brunei made statements. While Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia supported the Malaysian move but Brunei has been slightly constrained in its comment against China.
These intrinsic fissures within ASEAN have been threatening the entire rubric of the organisation and there are already China sympathisers in the group. These countries have desisted from openly criticising China and its behaviour in the South China Sea. In this regard it will be critical to note how the ASEAN Summit Communique will be drafted this year and whether there will be tensions between the pro-China members and anti-China, rational actors. It would be a difficult for Vietnam to choose sides as its interests are openly challenged by Chinese activities. Vietnam wants its economy to regain the pre COVID growth trajectory but developments in the region will have an impact on its maritime trade and commerce. Further, of Code of Conduct in SCS,if not signed sooner, than it would impact the fisheries yield because of bullying tactics by Chinese fishermen militia as well as development of offshore oil and gas fields.