China steps up strategic tie-ups in Asia at expense of US

As Asean inches closer to establishing a common market, China faces a growing sense of urgency to strengthen its multilateral networks in the region

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Tajikistan. Beijing is keen to consolidate its influence in Central Asia and strengthen its strategic partnership with n
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Tajikistan. Beijing is keen to consolidate its influence in Central Asia and strengthen its strategic partnership with non-Western powers such as Russia, Iran and Turkey.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

China's President Xi Jinping may have confidently advocated an era of a new "great power" relationship with the United States, but this has not stopped Beijing asserting its economic primacy in Asia and challenging the liberal world order.

With the US struggling to maintain its geopolitical ascendancy in the region, and the fate of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement in limbo, China is stepping up its efforts at re-configuring the strategic architecture of Asia.

The opportunity to do so comes amid growing frustration among emerging powers with the institutions of global governance.

The decades-old Bretton Woods system of monetary management is still dominated by the West, which enjoys disproportionately high levels of decision-making powers within the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). China is creating new spaces to deepen its influence which, in turn, will give it more leverage to enhance its position within the Bretton Woods system.

New networks

A striking example is how it has been a primary force behind the establishment of new cooperative networks that fall outside the American sphere of influence.

These range from sub-regional groupings like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to broader pan-Asian platforms like the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (Cica), which allow Beijing to consolidate its influence in Central Asia and strengthen its strategic partnership with non-Western powers such as Russia, Iran and Turkey.

During Cica's fourth summit, held in Shanghai in May, Mr Xi boldly called for member states to innovate security cooperation and establish a new regional security cooperation architecture, warning the US against interfering in Asian affairs.

And during the just-concluded SCO summit in Tajikistan, Mr Xi held talks with top generals from other member countries and welcomed improved strategic ties with Iran, which is seeking full membership in the organisation.

On a global level, China has stepped up its strategic partnership with emerging powers India, Russia, Brazil and South Africa, among others. The Bric grouping (Brazil, Russia, India and China) began holding regular summits in the aftermath of the 2007-08 global financial crisis.

These culminated in the establishment of the New Development Bank (NDB) and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA) this year. To give teeth to their newly created financial institutions, the Brics pledged an initial amount of US$100 billion (S$127 billion) to the NDB and CRA, respectively.

China is a major trading partner of all other Brics members, and has served as a key source of capital for infrastructure-related projects in those countries.

Given China's substantial trade with all the other Brics, they are also looking at undermining the hegemony of the US dollar as the global reserve currency by diversifying their currency reserves and launching and expanding alternative currency swap mechanisms, with the Chinese yuan potentially serving as a key trading currency alternative.

The NDB, with its headquarters in Shanghai, meanwhile, symbolises the emergence of China as a central player in the global development landscape.

With respect to the CRA, China is the largest contributor, responsible for almost 40 per cent of the total pledged fund.

The newly established institutions are quite small in comparison to the IMF, which holds about US$800 billion in its coffers, and the World Bank, which lends as much as US$60 billion annually.

Over time, however, the NDB and CRA are poised to expand in terms of their budget and capabilities, thanks to the Brics' large pool of currency reserves (over US$5 trillion) as well as their legions of highly-skilled development experts, who would oversee the operations of the two newly created financial mechanisms.

Wooing Asean

As Asean's top trading partner, China has also stepped up its investments in the region, with the soon-to-be-established Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) poised to compete with the Japanese-dominated Asian Development Bank (ADB) and serve as the backbone of China's Maritime Silk Road initiative, which seeks to integrate South-east Asia into an evolving global trading regime under Beijing's auspices. The new proposed bank will have start-up capital in the range of US$50 billion to US$100 billion - more than sufficient to give China an added voice in shaping the infrastructure landscape in the region.

With the US' top allies, Japan, South Korea and Australia shunning the AIIB - they were absent during the bank's founding ceremony, attended by 21 Asian countries - Beijing's dominance in the new institution will be further reinforced. After all, the pro-active participation of America's rich allies in the AIIB could have acted as a counterweight to China, paving the way for a more balanced, multi-polar configuration within the development institution.

But Washington and its allies have refused to legitimise what they see as a Beijing-dominated initiative, which supposedly overlaps with the mandate - if not contradicts the "good governance" and sustainability principles - of existing institutions such as the ADB and the World Bank.

Asean is home to rapidly developing economies such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar and Vietnam - all in desperate need of capital and technology to improve their basic infrastructure. The infrastructure spending gap in Asean stands at almost US$800 billion per year, far exceeding the lending ability of existing multilateral development agencies such as the ADB and the World Bank.

China - with almost US$4 trillion in its foreign exchange reserves and one of the world's most impressive track records in infrastructure development - is in a strong position to cover a growing proportion of the booming infrastructure needs of its South- east Asian neighbours.

If anything, as Asean inches closer to setting up a common market, there is a growing sense of urgency.

For Beijing, the AIIB could serve as a multilateral channel to invest its huge capital reserves in neighbouring states, making China an even more consequential player in South-east Asia's economic development.

Collectively, China-driven regional initiatives help strengthen its strategic depth in its own backyard. While the AIIB's precise contours are yet to be defined, there is lingering concern that China will utilise its economic influence towards geopolitical ends.

For instance, growing dependence on China for trade, investment and capital could affect Asean countries' ability and willingness to confront Beijing on sensitive issues such as the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. For critics, Beijing has leveraged - and will continue to do so - its economic power to frustrate efforts towards a unified regional front among Asean countries, specifically on the issue of developing a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

Overall, by offering large-scale financial incentives (AIIB), upgrading alternative regional platforms (Cica), and establishing new global institutions (NDB), China could be gradually carving out a new zone of deference in its neighbourhood - at the expense of the US and its regional allies.

The writer is a political science professor at De La Salle University in the Philippines.

S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.