This has been called the Asian Century. But what’s really going on here? And who are the real power brokers in the region? In this post, I’m going to focus on East Asia, but what’s going on in South and West Asia are whole other stories worth telling. The region can loosely be divided into two camps: China and it’s allies on one side and the US and it’s allies on the other.
A good starting point to discern who is in the American camp is to see who signed up for the TPP. In Asia, that is Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. Elements in Indonesia and Thailand also flirted with the Idea. Most countries went down this path to try to shake off their economic reliance on China. The ASEAN- China free trade area was agreed upon in 2002 and went into effect in 2010, and responses have been mixed. Now China is one of the top trade partners for every single ASEAN state, and the ASEAN union, once billed as some type of Southeast Asian EU, has never looked shakier. The realignments have been startling. If someone were to say, a couple decades ago, that in 2018 Vietnam would be America’s closest ally in Southeast Asia and the Philippines would be favoring China over the Americans, they would rightly be looked on with suspicion, but such is the crazy wold we live in. In fact, most economists agree that no country’s economy stands to gain more from TPP than Vietnam, and now that it’s been put on hold, Hanoi is falling over itself to kiss Trump’s ass.
An obvious point of contention has been the South China Sea dispute.
This is a very old dispute, and China’s claim is absurd at face value, but what is often overlooked is the role America played in this kerfuffle. The Obama administrations 2012 “pivot to Asia” involved placing American military personnel in five Filipino bases. This could potentially give the US the opportunity to deny China access to the crucially important Straits of Malacca. The US navy has in fact ran several ‘blockade drills’ to practice just that, and China responded with a ‘navel parade.’
China is surrounded by US bases. They could be forgiven for being a bit paranoid.
Documents declassified in 2017 proved that the US had Nuclear missiles in Okinawa pointed at major Chinese cities until 1972. Now it has nuclear submarines cruising all over the pacific.
China has bribed Cambodia and Laos to support their claims. Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore are staying neutral. And no one is coming to the rescue of the ASEAN claimants besides the US.
But this is not another post about bashing US foreign policy. I’m bored with that low-hanging fruit. I’m going to turn my attention to a neglected subject: the war for hearts and minds that China is emphatically losing.
As the US raped a plundered the world, Americans were often viewed as polite, friendly, and very unlike the murderous war machine that intervenes on their behalf. China has been the opposite in more ways that one. Imperial China was imperial only in name. Instead of conquering the untapped expanses of the continent, they built a great wall to keep everyone else out. In modern times, the Chinese Communist Party has been very cleaver in implementing their ‘soft power,’ but it’s regular Chinese citizens that may spoil a good thing. Increasingly around the world, but especially in Southeast Asia, the Chinese are viewed as arrogant, racist, uncivilized, and xenophobic. It doesn’t matter how much plutocrats in places like Phnom Penh, Vientiane, and Bangkok sell out to the red and gold, I suspect we are going to see a grassroots, bottom-up backlash in the next decade.
As a case study, lets take a look at Sihanoukville, Cambodia: I city I once called home. It was, not long ago, a thriving, multicultural seaside resort town, a regional hub where rural Cambodians could come to find work in tourism, service, or retail. Here’s a Reuters article explaining the situation nowadays. And here’s a Phnom Penh Post article detailing more of the downsides. The casinos started with a trickle, then it turned into a torrent. When I first went there in 2011 there were 3 or 4, now there are 24 with 20 more scheduled to break ground this year. This may sound like a good thing, and it is if you are a landowner, but the problem is there are very few job opportunities for locals. Now Sihanoukville’s tiny airport has direct flights to 8 Chinese cities with more planned. Now you can fly on a Chinese airline, get on a little bus with a Chines tour guide, travel to a Chinese-owned resort, be greeted by a Chinese receptionist, play blackjack or poker with a Chinese dealer, go to dinner at a Chinese restaurant and eat food cooked by a Chinese chef and served by Chinese servers. Maybe the maid that cleans your room will be Khmer. Aside from the tropical weather and the legal gambling, you would never know you left China. You can probably even pay for everything in Yuan. Khmer people and Westerners have fled the city in droves as property prices skyrocket and job opportunities dry up. There has also been a massive increase in drunk driving accidents and violence. Chinese gangs, pimps, and drug dealers have also set up shop.
No other nationality behaves this way. (Besides, to a lesser extent, maybe Koreans, Russians and Turks). When most people travel abroad, they want a taste of the foreign culture. Chinese people feel icky if they have to deal with brown people or hear foreign languages. This is only the beginning. Cambodian authorities need to decide how far they are going to allow this go.
This may seem like an extreme example, but it’s not. The Chinese have, for-all-intents-and purposes, annexed the city of Ton Pheung, Laos. Here’s an article that goes into greater detail. Even the police force and all other local authorities are Chinese. The city operates outside of Chinese and Lao law. Almost anything people are willing to pay for is available there. To make things worse, the Chinese have bought up thousands of acres surrounding the town to grow bananas and other fruits. They use deadly pesticides that are banned all over the world and that flow into local streams and rivers and decimated fish populations, put hundreds of fishermen out of the job, and have given untold numbers of people cancer. The rich Chinese plantation owners just pay off all the impoverished local officials. There is another town in Laos called Vang Vieng that used to be popular with young backpackers for its river tubing. This was a dangerous practice that has since been banned. The town has now become more of a quiet mountain paradise. That will change soon. In February, a Chinese developer announced pans to build a $200 million ‘tourist complex.’
The story is very much the same in Myanmar where the city of Mong La has been completely taken over as you can see in this short BBC clip.
There are also towns all along the Thai coast that have been mostly taken over by the Chinese. Although it is a bit different in Thailand, as Thailand has had a large Chinese population going back centuries.
As the Chinese middle class continues to grow, so will communities like these. The question is, how will Southeast Asians respond? I can only report first-hand on Cambodian sentiment, and most Cambodians I’ve heard voice their opinion on the subject are disgusted by what they see happening in Sihanoukville. Cambodian officials appear more than willing to sell their countries land out from under the citizens’ feet, but I feel the pre-rumblings of a populist movement, and it could happen in multiple countries.
There is certainly a precedent for this. In the 1960s a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment swept Malaysia and Indonesia. In 1964, there were race riots and violence in Singapore between the Chinese majority and Malay minority. In 1965, the Malay prime minister and parliament voted to expel Singapore, one of Malaysia’s most populous cities, from the country. This is the only involuntary secession in world history I can think of. In Indonesia, also in 1965, was one of the biggest genocides you’ve probably never heard of. What began as a purge of Communists turned into a slaughter of Chinese. By some estimates, more than 2 million people were killed.
As of 2017, Chinese people make up 23.2% of the population of Malaysia. This is the highest percentage in any ASEAN state besides Singapore. I’ve heard it said that the Chinese are the Jews of Malaysia. They are above average income and are often scapegoated by Malay politicians from the ruling party. I heard from a co-worker, who recently moved to Cambodia from Malaysia, that Malaysia’s happy experiment in multiculturalism is over and that the county has never been more divided. Hence the ruling party’s eagerness to sign on to TPP.
I think ASEAN is coming to a fork in the road. In the long run, they are going to have to unite against China or become irrelevant. I think the latter is much more likely. They’re next challenge will be to learn that they don’t have to sell out to the Americans either. Selling out to China and selling out to America are not mutually exclusive. You can choose neither or a bit of both. Thailand has somewhat chosen a middle ground, but at the expense of become relatively authoritarian. No doubt, if the Red Shirts were in power, they would have sold out to America, as would the CNRP if they ever took hold of Cambodia.
Now to East Asia. Obviously Japan and South Korea are in the back pocket of the US. But with the upcoming summit between the two Koreas and armistice on the table, Kim Jong Un is going to try to use his leverage to get some American troops off the peninsula. This would be very popular with regular South Koreans as well as obviously advantages for the North. But politicians in America and South Korea who are all bribed into submission by defense contractors are used to putting their bank accounts ahead of their principals. It will be interesting to see how this one plays out. For my thoughts on possible reunification see Reunification of Korea.
The protests against the continued occupation of Okinawa are not going to be heeded by Prime Minister Abe: the most pro-military leader of Japan since the end of WWII. Interestingly, an armistice in Korea would sully Abe’s aspirations for a repeal of article 9. You can bet that was brought up in his recent meeting with Trump.
In conclusion, America is overreaching as if in the last throws of a dying empire with an out-of-control military industrial complex. China is in a position to be a super power this century, but its citizens need to learn some humility first. And the wold’s greatest drama, on the Korean peninsula, is going through another interesting episode. Good luck to all.