Southeast Asian Perspectives on the Rise of China: Regional Security after 9/11

Article excerpt

Napoleon Bonaparte once described China as a sleeping dragon and warned not to wake it up. Now that China has awakened, it causes many nations to tremble--including the United States, the sole global power and the world's preeminent policeman.

The unprecedented rise of the People's Republic of China (PRC) is a global reality. From one of the world's least developed countries in the 1970s, China had developed one of the largest economies in the world by the late 1990s. (1) The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported that from 1979 to 1997, China's gross domestic product (GDP) grew at an average rate of 9.8 percent. (2) This phenomenal economic growth has spilled over to China's defense budget, with military spending rising to 17.6 percent of China's outlays, an equivalent of $3 billion in March 2002 alone. (3) Because of the burgeoning economic and military power of China, there are enormous worries about the idea of a "China threat."

The United States has particularly expressed strong apprehensions regarding the ascension of China. The US Commission on National Security/2 1st Century warns that "the potential for competition between the United States and China may increase as China grows stronger." (4) Even the Global Trends 2015 prepared under the direction of the US National Intelligence Council argues that the implications of the rise of China "pose the greatest uncertainty" in the world. (5) The Commission on America's National Interests describes China as "America's major potential strategic adversary in East Asia," (6) while the Council on Foreign Relations has stated that "China poses significant economic, military, and political challenges for the United States and for the nations of Southeast Asia." (7) This theme is supported by a RAND study describing China as a potential military threat to the United States and Southeast Asia. (8)

While the United States views China as a potential threat to its national security, how do Southeast Asian countries view the rise of China? What are the implications of the growth of China for regional security, especially in the aftermath of 9/11? This article aims to present Southeast Asian perspectives on the rise of China and its regional security implications since 9/11.

Southeast Asian Perspectives

Taken individually, Southeast Asian countries have varying perspectives on the many ramifications of strategic issues in the region. (9) Unlike some Western countries, however, Southeast Asian nations, taken as a whole, consider the rise of China as a great opportunity, with concomitant security challenges, rather than as a serious threat. From an economic standpoint, Rodolfo Severino, former Secretary General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), candidly describes China and ASEAN as "partners in competition." (10) There is also a widespread perception in Southeast Asia that "China will be the new engine of growth for the entire region." (11) In a report submitted by the ASEAN-China Expert Group on Economic Cooperation in October 2001, Southeast Asia optimistically views China as an economic opportunity. The Expert Group has, in fact, proposed the forging of closer ASEAN-China economic relations in the 21st century to integrate their economies. (12)

Recognizing the economic potential that China may bring to Southeast Asia, one important recommendation of the Expert Group is the establishment of an ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (ACFTA). The group views ACFTA as "an important move forward in terms of economic integration in East Asia," as well as "a foundation for the more ambitious vision of an East Asia Free Trade Area, encompassing ASEAN, China, Japan, and Korea." (13) The group suggests that "the realization of a China-ASEAN free trade zone agreement indicates that historical feuds and political clashes between ASEAN member states and the PRC are no longer one of the most important factors influencing ASEAN-PRC relations. …