Southeast Asia security

[OPINION] The conflict-collaboration game

Edilberto De Jesus
[OPINION] The conflict-collaboration game

Illustration by Alejandro Edoria

All the ASEAN members together cannot match China’s military power. It would be insulting, however, to assume they were all 'so irredeemably corrupt, terminally naïve or simple-minded that they would sell their national interests for a mess of pottage.'

Bilahar Kausikan had served as Singapore ambassador to Israel, Russia, and the UN, and as Singapore Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary. In a recent Foreign Affairs essay, he recalled a Vietnamese counterpart’s response to his question on what leadership changes in Vietnam meant for relations with the PRC: “Every Vietnamese leader must get along with China, every Vietnamese leader must stand up to China, and if you can’t do both at the same time, you don’t deserve to be leader.”

This tension in the relationship between China and Vietnam has endured over many centuries, beginning long before their common engagement in the anti-colonial struggle and embrace of the Marxist/Communist ideology.   China supported Vietnam’s resistance to French colonial rule, which led to the country’s division into North and South Vietnam. In contrast, Thailand and the Philippines, two founding members of ASEAN, sent soldiers to serve with the UN forces to fight against the PRC in the Korean War. The PRC again supported North Vietnam in its war to reunify the country under its rule.  

While still under British rule, Singapore and Malaysia had faced their own struggle with communist insurgency. Both also feared the “domino effect” – that the fall of the South Vietnam piece would topple other governments in the region, beginning with Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. Unlike Thailand and the Philippines, they did not send troops to South Vietnam but they cooperated in training South Vietnamese soldiers in jungle warfare and providing rest-and-recreation facilities for American troops. 

For most of the 20th century, China’s relations with Vietnam were warmer and stronger than those with ASEAN’s founding members. In the preceding period, however, the Vietnamese had sustained a protracted, 1,500-year struggle against Chinese colonial rule. China invaded and occupied Vietnam for the first time in 111 BC. Intermitted rebellion forced the Chinese to invade Vietnam on three separate occasions, until the Vietnamese regained their independence in 1428.   

If China wanted to turn back the clock, it has more historically-founded claims to control over Vietnam than the South China Sea and the nebulous Nine-Dash-Line (originally Eleven-Dash Line) generated by the Kuomintang Government in 1947. This would be analogous to the UK asserting rights over Canada or Spain over the Philippines, but still perhaps contributes to Vietnam’s sensitivity to China’s Great Power politics.

Like other ASEAN countries, Vietnam also contests Chinese claims over land and maritime boundaries. Since the Korean War, only Vietnam among ASEAN members has engaged China in a shooting war. In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to overthrow Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge government whose troops had been raiding Vietnamese border settlements and whose harsh regime eventually led to the death of an estimated two million Cambodians. Vietnamese troops captured the capital in less than two weeks but failed to catch Pol Pot, who continued to wage guerrilla war. Initially welcomed as liberators, the Vietnamese, overstayed their welcome and became regarded as invaders. Vietnam ended its occupation of the country after a decade and some 30,000 casualties.

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China, which had offered refuge to King Sihanouk, had been Cambodia’s  patron and protector. Concerned over Vietnam’s ascendance in the region and its close ties with the Soviet Union, China mobilized 300,000 troops and launched a punitive invasion to “teach Vietnam a lesson” in February and March 1979. Vietnam and China have also clashed in the South China Sea, most seriously in 1988, when Vietnam lost three ships and 74 sailors. 

Much weaker than Vietnam and more beholden to the PRC, Laos and Cambodia, as Kausikan noted, also found it necessary to stand up  to China.  In January 2018, Cambodia complained about a surge in crime and insecurity accompanying Chinese investment in the province of Preah Sihanouk.  In 2016, the President and General Secretary of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party lost their posts for being “too pro-China.” Both countries now worry about China’s valve-like control from its upstream position to regulate the flow of water to the Mekong River on which their agriculture depends. 

Although wary of communist China from the start, Singapore and Malaysia have benefitted from the economic expansion in the region promoted by its pivot to capitalism. These economic benefits have not diminished their wariness nor discouraged the pursuit of common goals with the United States. Aggrieved at the Chinese ambassador’s support for the rival party in the Malaysian elections, Mahathir warned, during his visit to Beijing in 2018, that Chinese actions in the region might suggest a form of colonialism.

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Lee Kuan Yew had grave reservations about American prosecution of the Vietnam War. But anyone who wanted the US to leave the region, in his view, was either a communist or a fool. With the termination of the US occupation of military bases in the Philippines in 1990, Singapore promptly offered use of its facilities to American forces, an agreement renewed in 2019.

Kausikan acknowledged that ASEAN avoided publicly opposing China but pointed out that it did not publicly criticize the US or any other major power either – “because public criticism forecloses options and reduces the room for diplomacy.”  Philippine officials seem less observant of this norm. While careful about offending China, they have been less concerned about offending the US and other Western powers. But Kausikan’s main point bears noting: “The diplomacy of ASEAN and its members is naturally promiscuous, not monogamous.”    

All the ASEAN members together cannot match China’s military power. It would be insulting, however, to assume they were all “so irredeemably corrupt, terminally naïve or simple-minded that they would sell their national interests for a mess of pottage.” Each member has the burden of proving to the others that this assumption is false. –

Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

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