China's growing influence

Singapore's ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan addresses issues surrounding Asean's delicate ties with the United States and China, amid escalating tensions in the South China Sea.
Singapore's ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan addresses issues surrounding Asean's delicate ties with the United States and China, amid escalating tensions in the South China Sea. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Beijing's claims in the South China Sea are not the only issues that threaten to spilt Asean.

Its growing influence over mainland South- east Asia may have even wider geopolitical implications for the 10-nation grouping, cautioned veteran diplomat Bilahari Kausikan.

"On land, the very rapidly growing economic ties between Asean and China, the various infrastructure projects that China has planned or begun, are in effect binding South-west China and mainland South-east Asia into one economic space," he said. "That will have an impact on how some Asean member states calculate their interests, although the extent of those geopolitical consequences is still yet to be seen."

One of the projects was a series of dams being constructed by Beijing in the upper reaches of the Mekong River. While they are all being built within China's territory, he believes they will have "a profound impact on half of the Asean membership through which the Mekong runs".

"Recently Thailand, Laos and Cambodia suffered a terrible drought and China agreed to release more water from these dams, which was a very generous act," he added. "But there's an old Chinese proverb: When drinking water, remember the source."

Mr Kausikan was speaking yesterday at an Asean Community conferencein Jakarta just days after China announced it had reached consensus with Brunei, Cambodia and Laos on the South China Sea issue. China has overlapping claims in the South China Sea with Asean states Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.

Mr Kausikan said Asean has not handled the issue "particularly well" but said Indonesia "has a special role to play" in such situations.

"Indonesia played a very important role after the fiasco in Cambodia in restoring some measure of Asean unity, at least on the level of broad principle and that was very important and I hope Indonesia continues to play such roles," he said.

Mr Kausikan was referring to the Asean foreign ministers' summit in 2012 where Cambodia as the bloc's chair acquiesced with China to block mention of the South China Sea in a joint communique. It was the first time in Asean's history that it failed to issue a joint statement.

Francis Chan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2016, with the headline 'China's growing influence'. Print Edition | Subscribe