China’s grabbing of maritime resources creates an opening for the United States

The island of Borneo lies more than 1,000 miles south of mainland China across a vast expanse of sea. This distance, however, has not stopped the People’s Republic from treating Borneo as its own backyard. The three countries that share the island – Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei – now find themselves on the side of recipients of the same drain on Beijing’s resources that has, to greater publicity, threatened the Philippines and Vietnam. .

China’s ever-growing appetite for oil and gas under Xi Jinping has sparked a new appropriation of resources. China is consuming 50% more oil and 100% more natural gas than just 10 years ago, and it is rushing south to claim offshore fields that promise to meet its demand.

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The most recent provocations along China’s so-called nine-dash line include the deployment of large Chinese maritime survey vessels covering the exclusive economic zones of Malaysia and Indonesia off the coast of Borneo, as well as the harassment of Malaysian oil and gas development. by Chinese Coast Guard ships and aircraft.

China’s model of behavior puts the maritime countries of Southeast Asia on a sticky wicket. China is very big, very close and very connected to the region. ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s State of Southeast Asia survey found that more than three-quarters of those surveyed saw China as the central economic force in Southeast Asia. The numbers correspond to this perception. Since 2001, trade between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, has grown 900 percent and is now worth half a trillion dollars a year. Seen as a single economic bloc, ASEAN, to which Indonesia and Malaysia belong, became China’s largest trading partner in 2020, while China has been ASEAN’s largest trading partner for over a decade. ‘a decade.

China is also a major investor in the region. Indonesia is on line for more than $ 90 billion in new developments thanks to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI. Malaysia is an even larger beneficiary of the BRI, by some measures, recording the second highest project value in the world.

To stay in Beijing’s good graces, Indonesia and Malaysia have adopted a habit of self-censorship regarding China’s offenses. This is described in the 2020 book by David Shambaugh, Where the great powers meet: America and China in Southeast Asia, and Indonesia’s response to Beijing’s recent visits to its EEZ illustrates this trend. Although maritime analysts have reported that the Chinese investigative vessel Haiyang Dizhi 10 conducted a revealing grid in Indonesian waters in September and October, Admiral Dato Rusman, commander of the Indonesian Maritime Combat Group, told President Joko Widodo during a videoconference that the vessel investigation “was making an innocent passage” and that “everything is safe and under control”.

Malaysia has tended to do the same. “Kuala Lumpur has consistently downplayed China’s activities in our territories,” says Malaysian politician and director general of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs Wan Saiful Wan Jan in Sebastian Strangio’s book in 2020: In the shadow of the dragon: Southeast Asia in the Chinese century.

But Malaysia now says it has had enough of China’s maritime intimidation.

On October 4, the Malaysian Foreign Ministry summoned the PRC Ambassador to Kuala Lumpur to express its opposition to the presence of PRC investigative vessels off its coast. Collin Koh, researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said Malaysia is now emphasizing a “no compromise” stance vis-à-vis threats in the South China Sea, a turning point in its orientation towards China.

The turning point testifies to a broader regional dynamic. “The more China’s presence and influence grows,” writes Shambaugh, “the less it is, apparently, trusted.” According to the Southeast Asian State Survey, Southeast Asians’ views on China are soured. Only 17% now express confidence that China will “do whatever it takes” to contribute to global peace, security, prosperity and governance, up from 20% in 2019.

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In the midst of this divide lies a diplomatic opportunity for the United States. While few in the region support outright alignment with one power or the other to the exclusion of the other, now favor advice to the United States. According to the 2021 survey, if they were “forced to align with the ongoing US-China rivalry,” 62% of respondents would choose the United States, while the choice of China fell from 47% in 2020 to 39% in 2021.

The Biden administration expertly endorsed ASEAN’s outlook on the Indo-Pacific this summer, but there are still opportunities to distinguish the American approach from Chinese commercialism. An important point could be the renewal of the American leadership on Asia-Pacific trade. The US exit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership has been costly for both Malaysia and Vietnam, each a key South China Sea claimant.

The five ASEAN members who have resource conflicts with China over its maritime behavior have a direct and distinct interest in maintaining a rules-based order that respects their sovereignty. The principles of freedom and openness that drive US policy toward the Indo-Pacific align with this interest, creating an opportunity for enhanced economic and strategic cooperation in the region.

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