Resentment against China grows in South China Sea region

China is sailing into the Pacific Ocean to win over smaller island countries as it wants to establish a new world order that has a lesser influence of the US and its allies. However, trouble is brewing in its backyard. China is fast losing trust among the South East Asian countries. Hegemony and imperialistic attitude are major reasons.

The resentment in these ASEAN countries has been on the rise since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. They fear the rising economic and political clout of China, generally translates into aggravated threats to their economic interests and sovereignty. Many of these countries have already lodged their complaints about China’s rising militarization and assertiveness in the South China Sea as Beijing used its military might to encroach upon exclusive economic zones of these nations as well as make claim on various islands in the sea.

China, survey and South East Asia

The share of people in South East Asia who dislike China grew from 51.5 per cent in 2019 to 63 per cent in 2021; found a survey carried out by Singapore-based SEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. About 69 per cent of respondents demanded that “China should respect my country’s sovereignty and not constrain my country’s foreign policy choices”.

South East Asian countries are wary of China’s rising economic clout since they are subjected to economic coercion. China is undoubtedly influential, but distrusted in the region, said Bilahari Kausikan, a retired Singaporean diplomat. “Beijing has behaved aggressively in pursuit of its interests. And there is also a certain cultural autism in Chinese diplomacy in Southeast Asia, that has accentuated the anxieties of the region,” he said.

ASEAN and China

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has members like Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia and Thailand, may act as a strong deterrence to increasing Chinese hegemony. However, their response has been quite trepid so far. This has led these nations to go close to the US. This does not come as good news for Beijing as the US is China’s rival and has been trying to counter China in South China Sea and East China Sea.

The trust about the US has been growing quite fast among the South East Asian nations. The SEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute survey showed over 55 per cent of respondents expressed confidence in the US as a strategic partner and provider of regional security. 3 There are reasons for these nations to be wary of China. When the entire world was fighting an unprecedented coronavirus pandemic—South East Asian nations too being vulnerable due to lack of required medicines and resources, Beijing had stepped up brinkmanship in the region and mounted pressure on these countries through military activities. China aims to coerce its relatively weak neighbours to give up their claims and territorial rights so it can bring almost the entire South China Sea and resources under its control.

China’s presence

Satellite imagery has shown China has made efforts to increase its presence in the South China Sea, by making violations of maritime territories of South East Asian countries. The grievances of the ASEAN nations are not limited to their sovereignty. Chinese encroachment on the vast reserves of natural gas and oil, strips them of the valuable marine resources that can boost their economic development.4 China has threatened countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam for even carrying out economic activities such as drilling in their own maritime territories that are authorised by The Hague’s international arbitration court.

Beijing issues direct threats of military attack if ASEAN countries do not stop their activities of oil drilling or exploration. China sends its vessels across the South China Sea, often violating maritime boundaries, and takes over disputed islands to build military bases. Chinese aeroplanes also carry out incursions in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of these nations.

China resorted to economic coercion through bans on imports from these countries when they refused to buckle under Chinese military pressure. Allowing China to control over 85 per cent of the South China Sea according to its “Nine-Dash” proposition leads these countries to lose revenue generated through sea trade also since one-third of global shipping occurs in the South China Sea.8 While these nations do not have the courage to stand up to Beijing’s bullying, the general mood has been quite against China. This can be of concern for Beijing amid the growing influence of the US and its allies in South China Sea region.