Chinese investment often buys cooperation, experts say

Chinese investment often buys cooperation, experts say

Hamid Sellak

Through promises of economic investments, China has managed to elicit cooperation and generate complacency from smaller countries that might otherwise disagree with bold actions taken in the region — particularly in the South China Sea (SCS) — by their larger neighbor, experts say.

SCS analysts contend that China uses its buying power to lure smaller states into a submissive posture through a mix of economic investment deals like those demonstrated by China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. Such investments often quiet countries on the receiving end from publicly protesting China’s assertions in the hotly contested SCS, according to experts.

“The Belt and Road initiative targets countries that are struggling on multiple fronts, faced with wobbly governments, terrorist threats, illiteracy and inhospitable terrain, to name a few,” Rafiq Dossani, director of the Rand Center for Asia Pacific Policy, said in a May 2017 report.

Through the initiative, China has helped countries “erect highways, railways, power grids, pipelines and other huge projects,” by lending money, labor, equipment and expertise at favorable rates.

One Belt, One Road participant countries include many of China’s SCS neighbors such as the Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — each of which holds disputing territorial and maritime claims against China and each other in SCS waters.

“China’s various actions in the South China Sea, like more assertive patrols, land reclamation and selected militarization, are indeed creating a new reality in the disputed areas,” Dr. Kuik Cheng-Chwee, associate fellow of the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaysia, told FORUM. “Through a mix of compulsion and inducement, Beijing is trying to push smaller states in the region to accept the ‘established facts’ on the ground. Many countries do not like this, but given the power gap and the uncertainties in big power relations, smaller states do not have good options to revert nor resist the trend. Few countries seriously think about military options to push back China.”

In late June 2017, China abruptly cut short a military meeting and visit to Vietnam, purportedly because of Hanoi’s refusal to stop its oil exploration activities in disputed waters, as well as Hanoi’s recent moves to strengthen its ties with the U.S. and Japan, said Kuik. Earlier, in May 2017, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said that Chinese President Xi Jinping, pictured, warned him that there would be war if Manila attempted to enforce the arbitration ruling and drill for oil in the SCS.

Addressing China’s motives, Kuik said that it is “in the big powers’ DNA to demand for more space, more influence and more respect as their relative power grows, vis-a-vis their peers and other weaker states.”

The extent to which these weaker states can defy China’s will depends largely on what actions the U.S. takes in keeping China’s provocations at sea in check, he added.

Recent freedom of navigation operation maneuvers by the U.S. Navy likely came as encouraging signs to such countries. A pair of U.S. destroyers, the USS Dewey and USS Stethem, each sailed — in late May and early July 2017, respectively — within 12 nautical miles of disputed SCS islands currently occupied by China but claimed by others.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang responded by calling the maneuvers a violation of Chinese and international law.

Hamid Sellak is a FORUM contributor reporting from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.