China’s relentless hegemony triggers arms race in Southeast Asia

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china hegemony
Chinese president Xi Jinping (Photo: Social Media)

The global geopolitical situation is in constant flux, with eroding globalisation, conflicting ideologies, shifting alliances, multi-domain global asymmetries, mainly economic within and between nations, and rising right-wing popularity for control. There is a surge in nuclear and military armament and modernisation, which could result in an expansive nuclear club, a race for disruptive and hi-technologies which can change the landscape of war, leading to a battle between the West led by the USA and her global allies, and the protagonist peer competitor China and ally Russia. The global South and a few others like India, nations in South America, Africa, and South East Asia (SEA nations – Brunei, Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Vietnam), are trying desperately to stay neutral and not get caught in the crossfire; but will be forced to take sides or get singed.

With Western media holding sway, China is the rising hegemonistic, cunning global power that is hell-bent on forcing her ideology and concept of one party/one leader rule as the best and the only alternative to a degenerating, greedy, selfish democratic West, which follows different rules for herself and the Rest of the World. China’s ominous portent includes credible and visible hegemonistic aspirations and actions. 

China probably rightly feels that “her time has come’” to proclaim her ideology as the most effective and pragmatic and dominate Asia first and the World next. More and more nations are getting wary of both poles. However, the Chinese surge in belligerent actions, coupled with rising multi-domain capacities and capabilities, which under normal circumstances would seem a natural progression of her rising comprehensive national power (CNP), is now seen with alarm and apprehension globally, especially by her immediate and regional neighbours in South and East Asia, and Indo-Pacific region. While many support Chinese economic policies like China’s Global Development Initiative (GDI) and BRI, most nations are wary of her role as a security provider in Asia.

The West and China are creating and consolidating their strategic space, compelling the Rest of the World to protect their national interest by building their CNP (internal, external, and soft power), as they need to be more precise about the intentions of either power bloc. One offshoot of this worldwide development is a surge in military spending and modernisation. 

Under President Xi Jinping, China’s defence and security domain, both kinetic and non-kinetic, has shown immense growth. Xi has categorically tasked his military to ‘prepare for war’. China is in a hurry to achieve her strategic and national goals before her CNP plateaus (some say that is happening faster than predicted), especially her dramatic decline in demographic youth power. 

The Ukraine war is a proxy war between the two power centres, bringing EU and NATO closer internally and externally and growing capacities to defend European landmass and leverage their CNP globally. The Ukraine war has decisively turned global attention, especially of bigger powers towards Asia and the Indo-Pacific, with a high probability of a new global great game for supremacy in Asia.

China’s Global Security Initiative (GSI), Defence Budget and its Impact on the Indo-Pacific Region

What does GSI mean to China

The GSI was launched by President Xi Jinping in UNGA in April 2022, calling on countries to adapt to the profoundly changing international landscape in the spirit of solidarity and address the complex and intertwined security challenges with a win-win mindset. While the general policies on foreign affairs and security are similar, as stated earlier, it is a new package and the latest expression of China’s international discourse that seeks to challenge the Western-led global governance system and especially to de-legitimise the US role in Asia and advocate an exclusivist approach to Asian security governance. It mainly talks of:

  • Concept of Indivisible Security: With growing threats posed by unilateralism, hegemony and power politics, and increasing deficits in peace, security, trust and governance, humanity faces increasingly intractable problems and security threats. Thus, China feels that the principle of “global indivisible security”, which means that no country can strengthen its security at the expense of others, should be the norm and institutionalised.
  • Asian Security Model: Implementing the above concept in Asia with a “common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable” security and building an Asian security model of mutual respect, openness, and integration”.
  • Opposing Sanctions: This would oppose the use of unilateral sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction, appearing to refer to Western sanctions.
  • Tackling New Cold War: The West’s Indo-Pacific strategy to divide the region, create a ‘new Cold War’, and use military alliances to assemble an ‘Asian version of NATO’. This view is bolstered by the formation of QUAD (USA, Australia, India, Japan); the resurgence of the ‘Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance’ involving Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA, and the UK; and the military alliance AUKUS (USA, UK, Australia) as a precursor to cementing an “Asian NATO”.

China’s Defence Budget Through Chinese Eyes

*Source: Graphic-Global Times

On 2nd April, China announced a draft budget for 2023 which shows the country’s annual defence budget rise to 1.5537 trillion yuan ($224.79 billion), an increase of 7.2 per cent, remaining single-digit for the eighth consecutive year. From the Chinese perspective (Global Times), the figure marks a reasonable and restrained boost amid military spending sprees by many other countries around the world in light of global security tensions, the need to modernise its national defence to protect its sovereignty, territorial integrity and development interests facing external threats and instabilities. 

There are contrarian signals emanating. Firstly, the external signs with the Ukraine war, the visit of Nancy Pelosi, the US overt anti-China geo-political and economic moves supported by the West and adverse global reaction against China forced Xi to give a call to get ‘ready for war’ during the Two Sessions, justifying its military modernisation. 

However, China’s hegemonistic actions in Asia (India, South and East China Sea) indicate concrete steps towards Asian dominance, providing the rationale for defensive and offensive multi-domain manoeuvres. China aims to achieve the centenary goals of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by 2027, realise the modernisation of national defence and the armed forces by 2035, and fully build the armed forces into world-class forces by the mid-21st century and its security implications in a contested Indo-Pacific region does not help assuage frayed feathers of SEA countries. 

Chinese Perceptions of Adversary Military Spend

The US, as usual, tops the list with an $817 billion budget for the Pentagon, more than three times that of China. Japan by a record-breaking 26.3 per cent higher than the previous year, and India by 13 per cent. EU and NATO have already substantially boosted defence spending. China’s defence spending as a share of GDP has remained stable for many years and is lower than the world average.

Focus on South East Asia

Foreign Minister Wang Yi has been vigorously broadcasting the benefits of GSI (Global Security Initiative) globally, especially in Asia. Regarding SEA countries, the region was in the spotlight with Wang Yi’s speech at the ASEAN Secretariat on 11 July 2022. Wang mentioned that the GSI is part of an effort to advance regional peace and stability for advancing ASEAN-China relations by supporting ASEAN centrality, cooperation on development, science, technology, innovation, and people-to-people ties. Specifically, Wang indicated that China would work with ASEAN countries to implement GSI cooperation in priority fields such as counterterrorism, joint maritime search and rescue, disaster management, and countering transnational crime, thereby strengthening security ties with ASEAN. Progress in non-traditional security areas, such as climate and cyber, and managing “differences and disputes” on the South China Sea would be enhanced. GSI remains vague, its future is unclear, and traction is far from guaranteed. Seasoned ASEAN officials rightly point out that while China has proposed a dizzying array of repackaged frameworks to Southeast Asian countries in recent years, only a few have eventually gained ground beyond Beijing’s hyping of initial rhetorical support. Unfortunately, the belligerent actions at sea in the South and East China region are contrary to assurances, making most ASEAN nations wary and unsure of China.

ASEAN Response

Undoubtedly, China is the most important economic partner for virtually every country in Southeast Asia, including US treaty allies. Initiatives like GSI are just part of China’s growing regional security role and its evolving efforts to knit together its expanding array of activities into proposals that can gain traction within the region and position itself more favourably relative to other perceived competitors. GSI does highlight the “Asia for Asians” vision relative to “outside” alternatives but is already facing pushback from countries such as Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cautioned that it was “neither realistic nor wise” to exclude actors from outside of Asia, including the United States. 

According to the State of Southeast Asia Survey 2023, the region’s overall reaction to the GSI is ambivalent and cautious as they fear that the GSI will increase US-China tensions and intensify pressure on regional states to take sides (see table 2 below). SEA states are aware of the vast gulf between rhetoric and reality when it comes to Beijing’s management of differences, including on the disputes in the South China Sea. China, under Xi, has followed a vigorous moralistic and nationalistic posturing and foreign policy, coupled with his more serious salami-slicing tactics both at land and sea. Without exception, all SEA nations have begun a surge in military expenditure to protect their national interests and lessen their dependence on the West and China.

Table 1 

How Confident Are You in China’s Global Security Initiative to Benefit the region?

*Source: State of Southeast Asia survey 2023

Table 2 

Why Do You Distrust China and What Can China Do to Improve Ties?

Source: State of Southeast Asia survey 2020-2023

The US Perspective, Actions and Ground Reality in SEA

Forcing states to choose between Washington and Beijing would be a strategic mistake. SEA is undoubtedly gaining strategic importance, especially given the US-China standoff and inadequate US policy moves and actions. Ukraine war awakened the Biden administration, which stepped up its game by filling up long-pending ambassadorial posts, clarifying its approach in key strategy documents, and boosting cooperation through initiatives such as the elevated Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the US and ASEAN. 

President Biden visited the region four times and even hosted the US-ASEAN Special Summit at the White House, bringing together nearly all ASEAN leaders. (Myanmar was not invited, and then Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte did not attend due to impending Presidential elections). The summit signalled that the US would invest further and still wields significant influence, despite China’s growing political, economic, and military clout. 

However, US power status has taken a hit in recent times. Despite US rhetoric of ‘Centrality of ASEAN’ and promising deeper bonds, perceived close security ties with the USA are no longer desperately desired, as it signals hostility towards China. One notable success is the promulgation of the ‘Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF)’, a policy that pledges to cooperate with a number of countries on advancing sustainable, competitive, and fair economic growth, which seven out of the 10 ASEAN countries have signed up (minus Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar). 

The new US National Defence Strategy states “will invigorate multilateral approaches to security challenges in the region, to include by promoting the role of ASEAN in addressing regional security issues.” However, Chinese presence and economic clout cannot be wished away. It is no secret that SEA is increasingly uncomfortable with US-China competition and how it might impact the region’s security and stability. As already stated, the US has fanned the flames of competition by resurrecting QUAD and forming AUKUS, mainly when both aim to push China back from the Indo-Pacific region, including SEA.

Taiwan Manoeuvres: Barometer to SEA Nations

Historical research provides a perspective of the history of Formosa, now Taiwan, that “Taiwan has always been at the periphery, and most of the time outside the periphery of the Chinese empire“. Since its founding in 1949, Beijing’s People’s Republic of China (PRC) government has never had any sovereignty over Taiwan. It has always been ruled independently: first, by the regime of Chiang Kai-shek, who wanted to “recover the mainland”, but since the early 1990s, Taiwan has been a vibrant democracy that wants to be accepted as a full and equal member in the international family of nations. 

Taiwan is the “reddest of red lines” for China, and it views it as an inalienable and integral part. US-China relations have followed a sine curve, and the US stand on Taiwan has been ambiguous at best. In his short Presidency, President Biden has categorically stated that the “USA would help Taiwan if it were ever attacked by China” (retracted by his advisors after every such assertion). The complex issue is outside the purview of this article, but suffice it to say that the USA is now firm in building up a formidable Taiwan military with commensurate hardware inside the island to enable Taiwan to sustain herself till the USA and her allies come to her aid physically (staggering military aid through FMS route provided by Trump and Biden administration alone; around US $42 billion, not counting the direct commercial sales). The necessity of stockpiling weapon systems is that Taiwan has no land connectivity, unlike Ukraine. The arms race ……. continues globally, including in SEA.

Complex Geo-Political and Security Environment in SE

China has laid claim and tried to control large tracts of the South China Sea for centuries, but aggressive overt manoeuvres have increased disproportionately since the past decade. The security environment of SEA has seen both continuity and profound changes. Chinese capabilities and capacities of prosecuting multi-domain confrontation and conflict have increased manifold; priority and intentions towards SEA could change for the worse precipitously. This insecurity provides an open invitation for the big powers to intervene. 

Unfortunately, ASEAN does not think or act unitarily in security matters but focuses on its security agenda. Their perception of threats varies, as do their spending and acquisition patterns. China looms large during decision-making and military spending, especially the six states contesting territorial claims in the South China Sea (Brunei, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam). The emphasis is on advanced long-range weapons, drones (UAVs), and creating effective anti-access/area denial systems/weapons that provide a credible deterrence. The increase in military spending has been so dramatic that the term ‘arms race’ has been used, implying a rapid excessive and destabilizing action-reaction pattern leading to regional military build-up and the potential of future large-scale armed conflict.

Military spending, percent of GDP, 2021 – Country rankings

The average for 2021 based on nine countries was 2.07 per cent. The highest value was in Burma (Myanmar): 3.33 per cent, and the lowest was in Indonesia: 0.7 per cent. The indicator is available from 1960 to 2021. 

Below is a chart for all countries where data are available:

Bottom of Form

Countries Military spending, percent of GDP, 2021 Global rank Available data 
Burma3.3311961 – 2021
Brunei3.2621984 – 2021
Singapore2.9831970 – 2021
India2.6641960 – 2021
Cambodia2.3251986 – 2021
Thailand1.3261960 – 2021
Malaysia1.0671960 – 2021
Philippines1.0481960 – 2021
Indonesia0.791974 – 2021

Source: globaleconomy.com

SEA Nations’ Defence Budget Surge

Growing insecurity has led South East Asian states to increase their military spending and arms acquisitions, mainly through imports. The increases are facilitated by economic growth. Military spending for the region increased by 33 per cent between 2009 and 2018, and arms acquisitions in the last decade were about twice those of the previous decade, significantly more than other regions’ global statistics 

Between 2002-2007, Southeast Asia’s military expenditure was less than $30 billion per annum, but it breached the $30 billion mark from 2008 to 2014; from 2015, SEA countries spent about $41 billion or more, touching $44.3 billion in 2020. The surge started around 2013 when China’s aggressive intent in the South China Sea became overt, and expenditures jumped from $34 billion to $38 billion and have been growing since. 

Similarly, East Asian nations Japan (“record” defence expenditure of US $51.7 billion for 2023, emphasising “the most severe and complex security environment since World War II”), South Korea (US $48 billion in 2021, increase of 5.4 per cent), Australia (around A$42.75 billion, 2.19 per cent of the country’s GDP with plans to increase to 2.38 per cent of GDP by 2023-24) – all have enhanced military spend mainly due to muscular Chinese actions and policies.

India’s Role and Actions

India has strong historical links with SEA, and geographically and geo-politically, SEA is too close for comfort, given India’s regional power aspirations and status, maritime goals and strategic compulsions in Indo-Pacific (specially IOR). Our unresolved borders with China, perpetual strategic competition and confrontation, and present relations need to expand India’s strategic space to manoeuvre India to continuously upgrade and expand her CNP, focusing on building strong linkages and inter-dependencies with SEA by renewing focus on our ‘Act East’ policy. We can play honest broker in case of tensions in SEA and East Asia. 

Interestingly, despite the current geopolitical winds, China hopes and aspires for good relations with India and has been calling for the same. India is in a good strategic space with the West led by the USA, the competitor led by China and Russia, the third pole of the Global South, and all the Rest wanting India on their side. India should continue promoting multilateralism under ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (The World Is One Family)’, restructuring the economic order for equitable, sustainable development, and taking a diplomatic leadership role towards cementing the Asian Century.  

Conclusion

The world is focussing on Ukraine and the resultant churning geo-political balance, but the ‘centrality of Asia’ beckons, in which SEA is a pivotal region. The current turbulent security environment could exacerbate the differences between China and ASEAN. China and ASEAN nations need to sit down and resolve their differences and continue talking rather than precipitate a confrontationist phase. The USA needs to play an honest superpower to ensure stability in Asia. India needs to keep enhancing its CNP and multi-domain capabilities and concurrently take a leadership role in ensuring the “centrality of Asia” and the coming of the “Century of Asia”.

(This article was first published in bharatshakti.in)

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