U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently attempted a tour of Southeast Asia, visiting Indonesia and Malaysia before a COVID-19 scare prompted an emergency return to the U.S. Blinken was seeking to bolster U.S. influence in a region that was sorely neglected during the Trump administration and remains neglected today.
The unspoken agenda of the diplomatic tour was to rally Southeast Asian countries to curry favor for good of Uncle Sam and not cede the field to the rising dragon of China which has obtained growing clout in direct proportion to U.S. decline in the region.
Although Indonesia is far from China and has a long history of disputes with the same, Blinken’s warm welcome in Jakarta was marred by the simultaneous arrival of Sergei Lavrov, his counterpart from Russia. Blinken went ahead with his planned schedule, meeting President Joko Widodo and giving a speech at a local university, but the contemporaneous presence of Russia’s top diplomat at a time when Russia and China appear to be increasingly aligned in opposing U.S. hegemony, was a spoiler for the trip.
Not surprisingly, Blinken’s speech was all about containing China, partly expressed in code, partly put in blunt terms. Indeed, he suggested the U.S. counter Chinese influence by all means necessary, or as he put it, by creating a strategy that weaves together “all our instruments of national power -- diplomacy, military, and intelligence.”
Blinken’s aborted trip to Thailand means that the perceived tilt of Thailand away from the U.S. and towards China will have to be addressed long-distance for now, and given that Washington, DC is rife with domestic political distractions, not much is likely to get done in the interim.
But Thailand remains a frontline country in the battle for hearts and minds and economic influence between the U.S. and China. Despite a long head start—the U.S. highway building program in Thailand took dramatic shape in the 1950’s when dollars started to pour in and airports and highways were built. The strategic Friendship Highway which runs from Bangkok to the Lao border on the Mekong River was in some ways akin to China’s railway diplomacy today.
In recent decades, however, the U.S. has started to lag behind China in the push to improve bilateral relations with Bangkok, complicated by human rights problems under Thailand’s thinly-veiled military rule. Sometimes concern for human rights gets in the way of fostering investment and developing infrastructure to facilitate trade, sometimes it’s just inattention and neglect.
China just celebrated the opening of a six-billion dollar high speed rail project connecting Kunming to Vientiane, and it has been active in seeking to extend its fast rail prowess into Thailand as well. For better or worse, Thai political quibbling and sporadic opposition to the idea of directly connecting China with Thailand has left uncertain the future of the Thai segment of China’s ambitious rail project, but even the Lao segment of the fast train is a potential game-changer.
China can now flood Thailand with cheap, quality products, and import the raw materials it seeks, from Thailand, which is just a bridge away, since the terminus of the Lao rail project is located right across the river from the Thai city of Nongkhai, which is known as the “gateway to Vientiane.”
During his curtailed visit to Malaysia, Blinken focused on the thorny problem of Myanmar. Blinken urged Malaysia, and by extension, all members of ASEAN to reconsider their long held policy preference for neutrality and the historic stance on non-interference.
China proclaims the principle of non-interference, and this ideal—rarely met in practice—has deep Southeast Asian roots going back to the core principles espoused at the influential Bandung Conference held in West Java in 1955.
At that time, China’s Zhou Enlai met with conference host Sukarno, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, Burma’s U Nu and Egypt’s Gamal Nasser among other leaders to counter Western influence and to promote Third World unity. The ideological thrust, the so-called “spirit of Bandung,” became a lasting project that informed foreign policy planks and eventually took form as the non-aligned movement (NAM) in 1961.
“I understand that we celebrate the principles of non-interference,” Blinken told his hosts, but then added: “ASEAN should also look at the principle of non-indifference because what happens in Myanmar is already getting out of Myanmar.”
Indeed Myanmar’s neighbors on all sides—China, Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia–have been rocked by refugees and belligerent acts of war near their borders. Malaysia alone is host to nearly 200,000 Rohingya refugees and Bangladesh has been reeling from the forced migration of the Rohinga escaping military abuse in west Myanmar. Thailand has reported spillovers of fighting along the border.
Blinken’s artful turn of phrase, which in a single breath acknowledges the history of “non-interference” but suggests that “non-indifference” is a more appropriate stance for the current age, has direct implications for China.
China is as wary of unrest in Myanmar as any country because the two nations share a long, difficult-to-patrol border, and illegal border-crossings, while once common, are increasingly considered an existential threat during this time of worldwide pandemic. Emergency fences have been erected and normally thriving Sino-Burma border towns have gone silent.
But China and Myanmar recently struck a deal to conduct trade in RMB instead of dollars and Beijing remains reluctant to criticize the regime in Naypyitaw. This is in keeping with a stated preference for non-interference, and perhaps a reflection of the hurt that China has historically experienced as the target of denunciation by the West.
But there’s self-interest at stake, too, because China has invested a great deal in Myanmar and has vital infrastructure projects in play. Beijing’s seemingly callous disregard for the social breakdown in Burma may comport well with the idea of “non-interference” but it fails the test of “non-indifference.”
Will a newly-strong, newly-confident China have the courage to care about what happens in the countries it does big business with, or is it business as usual under the fig-leaf of “non-interference?”