Donald Trump and Xi Jinping are the two biggest threats to global peace today. They’re both bullies – terrorizing their respective “schoolyards” – Latin America as well as the Middle East for Trump and Southeast Asia for Xi Jinping.
Trump’s ignorance, malevolence and bigotry has always been there to see. It’s easy to dismiss his adventurism and bravado against Iran as an attempt to distract everyone from his impeachment and re-election troubles.
Xi is infinitely more sinister. Back in 2016, the world’s leaders looked to Beijing and him as an alternative hub – for a principled, even-handed approach to global economics and politics. Words cannot express our shared disappointment.
China under Xi has forgotten all the lessons of the late Deng Xiaoping. The Middle Kingdom is as thuggish and contemptuous of smaller states (that’s us, guys) as the USA. His regime waves its “Century of Humiliation” by the West as an excuse to manipulate other countries.
Indeed, President Xi cloaks his aggressive actions in the South China Sea (“SCS”) and elsewhere as part of China’s “peaceful rise to power” rhetoric.
Both the US and China disdain diplomacy. They despise us. As far as they are concerned, we are weak, small and poor. In the 1960s, the Americans called the Vietnamese “gooks”. Now, as far as Beijing and Washington are concerned: we're all “gooks.”
Given such an environment, global trust, plus the applicability and respect for rules have collapsed.
I mean, why bother showing mutual respect when you can just as easily thwack on over the head? This is classic bully-boy behaviour.
How else does one explain China’s growing belligerence in the SCS, particularly its moves off the Natuna Islands – whose waters fall within Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The Chinese not only sent fishing fleets, but also coastguard vessels.
The SCS is important. Nearly 1/3rd of all global shipping—worth some USD3.37 trillion—passes through it annually. It contains potential energy reserves of 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of oil, as well as providing 12% of the global fish catch.
China claims most of the SCS, marking its maps with the infamous “nine-dash line”, overlapping with several other Southeast Asian nations. China has not only violated almost everyone else’s waters, but also constructed artificial islands there.
Years of talks for a “Code of Conduct” that will regulate behaviour in the SCS have so far proven fruitless.
It is true that China is ASEAN’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade in 1H2019 amounting to USD292 billion. It has also invested around USD255 billion in infrastructure projects in ASEAN’s six largest economies.
Indonesia – which ironically has in the past maintained that it isn’t even an SCS claimant– in the first 3 quarters of 2019 received some USD3.3 billion in Chinese projects, some of which are part of the highly-controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
But does the scale of China’s trade, investment and tourism give them the right to ride roughshod over us? I don’t think so.
Again, China is forgetting the lessons of its own history: that no people will ever accept foreign domination, whatever the threats or inducements.
We in Southeast Asia care as much about our territorial integrity as the Chinese themselves.
Why should we turn the other cheek? Why should Chinese officials’ feelings be the only ones that matter?
Xi could have profited massively from Trump’s recklessness and—let’s face it—downright evil. We wanted to like and respect Xi. We really did.
So, what’s the rest of the Southeast Asian schoolyard to do?
Three things stand out:
First, unity is key. We have our differences, but bullies can’t mistreat the smaller kids in schoolyard if we’re united. Indeed, our most potent defence lies in working together and we already have the structure – ASEAN – to do so. Cooperation between member states – including joint exercises, information sharing and other forms of trust-building – is also vital. Our maritime infrastructure and capacities must be constantly upgraded. If we all work in isolation, we will be picked off and beaten up, one-by-one.
Second: giving in won’t solve anything. The Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte has basically done just that. They have precious little to show for their grovelling. Trying to spare a bully’s feelings by splitting rhetorical hairs is pointless.
Bullies are predictable: if they hurt you once, they’ll do so again in the future even though they may share bits of the candy with you in the short-term. Appeasement never works.
Now I know many Southeast Asians are afraid that China will retaliate in terms of trade and investment. This is entirely possible. However, our region has traded with China for centuries and will continue to do so. The linkages are just too deep for there to be a long-term hiatus.
However, it’s important that China realise that we take our independence seriously. That our struggles for sovereignty and freedom from foreign interference have not been forgotten.
Finally: you need credibility to stand up to a bully. We mustn’t turn into bullies ourselves. All our countries have significant Chinese communities. They have become an integral part of our respective nations. They must not become unwitting victims of China’s actions in the region, least of all at the hands of their own governments.
Still, it’s a tall order. Sometimes it seems as if nothing can help us against these two all-powerful bullies. But if Southeast Asia could see the bigger picture and stand together; there’s a chance that maybe – just maybe – we could keep our schoolyard free and peaceful.