With the rapid expansion of China’s regional and global interests, it is inevitable that Beijing will increasingly utilize its armed forces, police and civilian security agencies to protect and advance those interests. This trend is readily apparent in Southeast Asia, China’s strategic backyard. But while China’s cooperative security overtures have been welcomed, the assertive use of its military and paramilitary forces in the maritime domain continues to fuel concern among its nearest neighbors.
The use by China of elements of its state security apparatus in Southeast Asia last month provides a good illustration. In mid-June, the Chinese navy’s hospital ship Peace Ark participated in a humanitarian disaster relief exercise in Brunei under the auspices of the 18-nation ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus). At the same time, Chinese police officers were working alongside their counterparts from Thailand, Myanmar and Laos to crack down on criminals operating along the Mekong River. Meanwhile, however, in the South China Sea, Chinese warships and civilian maritime vessels were asserting Beijing’s sovereignty and jurisdictional claims
as the Southeast Asian claimants looked on anxiously and, for the most part, helplessly.
China’s police forces have been cooperating with their Southeast Asian colleagues to tackle transboundary crime for decades. But the Mekong operation is part of a more proactive and muscular policy to fight crime along China’s porous borders, especially in the infamous Golden Triangle area, notorious for its illicit drug production and lawlessness.
China’s robust anti-crime initiative on the Mekong
began in late-2011 following the brutal murder of 13 Chinese sailors
near the riparian border with Thailand. The Chinese public was outraged, and in order to assuage that anger Beijing used its considerable influence in mainland Southeast Asia to persuade Thailand, Myanmar and Laos to establish coordinated marine police patrols along the Mekong under China’s direction. Beijing also ordered an unprecedented manhunt to apprehend the murderers, during which, according to media reports, China considered using a drone to kill the alleged mastermind of the attack, Naw Kham. Myanmar and Laos promptly handed over six suspects, four of whom were tried and executed by Chinese authorities in March 2013.
China’s arm-twisting appears to have paid off, though. The security situation on the Mekong has improved since the first of the coordinated patrols was launched in December 2012. According to Chinese law enforcement officials
, the most recent operation, from April to June, led to more than 2,500 arrests and the seizure of nearly 10 tons of drugs worth $400 million, weapons and ammunition. In this instance, China has provided a public good.
China’s participation in the ADMM-Plus exercise in Brunei was another milestone in its defense diplomacy in Southeast Asia. Since the early 2000s, Beijing has stepped up its military engagement with the ASEAN members for two main reasons. First, it increases China’s regional influence through dialogue, exercises and arms sales. And second, it helps with the modernization of China’s armed forces as it provides the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with insights into foreign military capabilities, tactics and equipment.
China now holds annual defense and security dialogues with Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar. These events have proved to be useful venues to increase mutual security perceptions and advance bilateral military cooperation. Meanwhile, the PLA has conducted combined military exercises with its counterparts from Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia, including special forces, counterterrorism and naval exercises.
Chinese arms sales to the region are also a useful element in Beijing’s defense diplomacy. During the 1990s and 2000s, China was the main supplier of military equipment to Myanmar, and since the end of the Cold War it has also made limited defense sales to Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Timor-Leste.
But while China’s security profile in Southeast Asia is rising, it is also constrained and, in some cases, counterproductive to its national interests.
Southeast Asian states jealously guard their sovereignty, and when China suggested that the Mekong patrols be conducted jointly—which would have allowed Chinese police to enter its neighbors’ waters—Thailand politely rebuffed the proposal.
And although the ASEAN states have warmly welcomed China’s desire to engage in strategic dialogue and take part in humanitarian military exercises, there are limits to Beijing’s defense diplomacy.
Chinese-manufactured military equipment is good enough for countries with small defense budgets, but, with the exception of missile technology, it has earned a poor reputation for quality. Most of the ASEAN states prefer to buy advanced Western or Russian military equipment. Even Myanmar has become disillusioned with Chinese arms and is shopping around for alternatives.
Meanwhile, U.S. export rules forbid foreign militaries from using high-end weapons platforms, such as fighter jets, to exercise with certain countries, including China. In addition, language barriers and problems of interoperability have meant that PLA exercises in Southeast Asia have been limited in scale and duration, and focused on addressing nonsensitive transnational threats rather than combat training.
This stands in marked contrast to the United States
, whose defense diplomacy activities in the region dwarf those of China. The U.S. military holds several hundred training exercises with Southeast Asian militaries every year, ranging from small tabletop to large field exercises involving thousands of military personnel. In the past decade, China has conducted fewer than a dozen combined exercises in the region. In 2012, more than 200 U.S. Navy ships visited Singapore while not a single PLA vessel made a port call to the city-state.
Most importantly, however, it is the growing sense of unease bordering on alarm at Beijing’s assertive, even aggressive posture in the South China Sea that is proving to be a formidable barrier to closer military cooperation between China and regional states, particularly those in maritime Southeast Asia that distrust Beijing’s long-term intentions. Trust is an essential prerequisite for close military ties between countries. And despite its defense diplomacy activities, the trust deficit between China and some of its Southeast Asian neighbors is widening, creating a natural limit on what Beijing can hope to achieve through regional security cooperation.
Ian Storey is a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. He is the author of “Southeast Asia and the Rise of China: The Search for Security.”