In the post-World War II, Cold War era, prosperity and stability in Asia was fuelled by the American vision of a rules-based global order and heavy investments in the region. Economies that were the first to take off like Japan, South Korea. were predominantly American allies. But things changed after an isolated China started reforming up and opening its economy in the late 70s.
In the course of time, China grew into a 14 trillion dollar economy and became an Asian giant exerting tremendous influence in the region. In the past decade, China has been misusing its position to carve out an exclusive sphere of influence. But the Coronavirus Pandemic has cast a shadow on its Asian hegemony and the countries that were once hounded by the Dragon are rightly paying it back.
Beijing interferes in the internal affairs of other Asian countries in its vicinity, openly buys influence from domestic governments of sovereign states, debt traps strategically located island countries and practises expansionism as a matter of state policy.
The Coronavirus Pandemic combined with the South China Sea dispute has exposed how irresponsible a giant the Dragon is. With reduced credibility, China might end up losing influence even in countries where Beijing found favour with a friendly regime.
Take the case of the Philippines, for example, where President Rodrigo Duterte has remained heavily pro-China since he came to power in 2016.
But with the Coronavirus Pandemic galvanising opinion against China and Beijing’s hawkish attitude in the South China Sea becoming too hard to ignore, Duterte has chosen to recalibrate by withdrawing his decision to pull out of the visiting forces agreement with the United States, a two-decades-old military pact between the two countries that allows American troops in the country.
Not very long ago, Duterte was ready to play into Beijing’s hands by sidestepping an arbitration award which recognises that China’s claims in the South China Sea violate the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, but now the Philippines has officially and openly backed Vietnam in the latest skirmish against Beijing in the South China Sea.
Vietnam itself has been assertive in the South China Sea primarily because it has been most severely affected by China’s aggression. China routinely encroaches into Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and harasses fishermen or disrupts oil drilling activities.
Beijing’s claims in the strategic waterways are based on an imaginary “nine dash line” theory wherein it claims “historical maritime rights” in 90 per cent of the waterways as far as 2,000 kilometres away from its territory. China also defies the international arbitration award regarding the South China Sea.
Earlier this year, Vietnam also approached the UN following the sinking of a Vietnamese ship with eight crews onboard by a Chinese ship near Paracel Islands.
Moreover, Vietnam is also eyeing for foreign companies that are planning to exit China. Multinational companies want to exit China, and Vietnam wants to grab them.
China’s aggression in the South China Sea is also having repercussions in Indonesia. Indonesia’s President Jake Widodo was accused of being too soft on China by Prabowo, whom he had defeated during the Presidential polls last year.
But the Coronavirus Pandemic has spiked anti-China sentiment in Indonesia, and the Widodo regime has taken certain decisions regarding China.
Indonesia has raked up the 2016 Arbitration award which the Philippines won, against China’s claims that it has a historic right in the South China Sea.
Within Indonesia, there is a palpable shift in China policy. Jakarta is now mulling to include Japan in Kereta Cepat Indonesia China (KCIC), an Indonesia-China consortium to develop the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway.
Interestingly, China had outbid Japan for the project but the consistent delay in the project by the Chinese side which has been further exacerbated by COVID-19 has pushed the Indonesian government to bring Japan in the fold to expedite and expand the national strategic project.
In Malaysia too, China is losing the extensive influence that it once used to enjoy. China had found a pliable regime during Prime Minister Najib Razak in the Southeast Asian country. Razak was even accused of “selling of” Malaysia to Beijing.
The Mahathir regime was supposed to counter the growing Chinese influence by replacing a pro-China Razak. But the volatile nonagenarian ultimately succumbed to Chinese influence on issues like Huawei. Last year in Tokyo, Mahathir openly supported the Chinese telecom major and criticised the US.
But things changed for China when it is already facing backlash around the world. There was a regime change in Malaysia, and the Muhyiddin Yassin government has now revoked 5G contracts for five companies, which in turn affects Huawei.
In other parts of Asia, that is, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, China had already lost influence.
In all these Asian countries, China has exercised extensive influence at some particular time in the past. But things are changing in the shadow of the Coronavirus Pandemic. These sovereign states were once insulted and hounded by Beijing, and now it is payback time.