Cambodia took the blame for ASEAN’s recent failure, for the first time in its 45 year history, to agree on wording for a joint communique at the recent gathering in Phnom Penh. Cambodia’s strenuous objection to any mention of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea mirrored Chinese interests. This was not a coincidence, writes Bernie Glaser from the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
That the Chinese had sway over Cambodia should not come as a surprise. Beijing has provided billions in aid to Cambodia. In 2011 alone the amount of foreign investment pledged to Phnom Penh by China was 10 times greater than that promised by the United States.
For more than a decade, China has pursued a strategy in Southeast Asia that relied heavily on economic carrots to increase the stake of the Southeast Asian countries in maintaining good relations with China. The China-ASEAN FTA, Chinese foreign direct investment, foreign assistance, and trade have all been used to encourage countries to consider Beijing’s interests when formulating policies and eschew actions that China would view as objectionable. In the past few years, however, China has directly used economic relations to compel target countries to alter their policies. And this growing trend is worrisome.
Glaser lists a number of similar incidents in which China has strong-armed its neighbors:
- Earlier this year, after a dispute with the Philippines over claims to the Scarborough Shoal, Chinese quarantine authorities allegedly blocked the import of Filipino bananas. The Philippines sends roughly 30 percent of its bananas to China, dealing the industry a major blow. Papayas, mangoes, coconuts, and pineapples came in for similar treatment as well.
- In September 2010, China blocked shipments of rare earth minerals to Japan in retaliation for its detention of the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler near the Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited islets claimed by both countries (as well as Taiwan).
- After Norway awarded Chinese dissident Liu Xiabo the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, Beijing froze trade negotiations with the country and cut back its imports of Norwegian salmon by almost 60 percent.
The U.S. needs to understand how this works and think carefully about where and how we counter it. The goal is not to prevent China from having links with its neighbors but to promote real cooperation and integration that respect the rights of the smaller countries even as it helps the prosperity of the whole region.