Headlines about China's role in South-east Asia tend to be dominated by its economic initiatives, be it grand regional schemes such as the One Belt, One Road or generous bilateral aid to its ally Cambodia. But in recent months, Beijing's increasing security cooperation with South-east Asian states, including traditional US allies, has dominated the news. Given the alarm that this has sparked among some, this trend warrants closer attention for a sense of perspective.
The spotlight on China's defence links with Asean states is understandable. In just the last quarter of this year, China has inked a coast guard agreement with the Philippines, concluded its first pact on naval vessels with Malaysia, and explored the setting up of a regional joint military production facility with Thailand. This is on top of either finalised or prospective new arms sales to South-east Asian states, including battle tanks to Bangkok and rifles to Manila.
To be sure, Chinese security cooperation with South-east Asian countries is far from new. In just the past five years, China has carried out joint patrols along the Mekong River with Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, started military exercises with Singapore and Malaysia, and proposed regionwide collaboration in areas such as law enforcement and counter-terrorism under the banner of the newly launched China-Asean Defence Ministers' Informal Meeting.
But it is also true that five years ago, few could have foreseen Beijing winning a multibillion- dollar bid to build the first submarines of Thailand, a US treaty ally, or advancing coast guard cooperation with another, the Philippines, after the sabre-rattling between them in the South China Sea before the emergence of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
So what should one read into all of this?
In part, China's expanding security collaboration with South-east Asian states is a natural consequence of both Beijing's rising material capabilities as well as its improving relationships with Asean states. Major powers eventually translate their growing economic heft into military prowess, and China is no exception. As China's military capabilities increase, it opens up both challenges as well as opportunities for neighbouring states and Beijing to engage in the defence realm.
But there is no doubt that Beijing has seized these defence opportunities because it understands their wider geopolitical value as well. At the most basic level, they help forge the "all-round" comprehensive strategic partnerships it seeks to have with South-east Asian states, thereby boosting its overall influence in the subregion.
They also help lay the groundwork for Beijing's grander ambitions to reshape the regional security architecture and eventually play the role of security provider, a responsibility Washington now has. And to the extent that China does see an opportunity to disrupt the US alliance network, which it views as a Cold War relic, that would constitute an added bonus. As one Chinese academic put it to me during the Xiangshan Forum in Beijing back in October, these are "necessary stepping stones" to build the foundation for these loftier goals.
For South-east Asian states, the motives are more diverse but equally clear. A few see or are willing to consider China as one cheaper source of defence equipment that comes with its own problems but without the annoying human rights lectures from the West. But most are still engaging an increasingly capable military which they remain deeply suspicious of through more exchanges.
China's growing security cooperation with South-east Asian states also needs to be viewed with some perspective. Put in historical context, progress is often slow and advances modest, with their sustainability still in question. Consider China's defence ties with Malaysia. Though both countries inked a memorandum of understanding on defence cooperation back in 2005, military exercises began only in December 2014 while a few defence pacts remained unrealised over several years before the naval vessels deal was reached in November.
As for Chinese advances with Thailand and the Philippines, they are the result of regime changes and temporary downturns in relations with decades-old US allies. Though they are far from insignificant, they pale in comparison to the cooperation Washington enjoys with these countries. Furthermore, the firm foundation of collaboration that Manila and Bangkok have with Washington, as well as related considerations such as interoperability, imposes structural limits on how far current leaders can take their defence ties with Beijing before successor governments replace them.
China is also far from the only one making inroads in the security realm in South-east Asia. The United States has also been expanding its vast network of regional allies and partners - a clear advantage Washington has relative to Beijing - with the lifting of a decades-old arms embargo in Vietnam, the new defence agreement with Singapore, and quieter maritime security initiatives with countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. And though it is still early days, Washington is already looking at opportunities with countries seeking greater diversification away from Beijing, including Myanmar and Laos.
Nor is this simply a US-China story, as some are fond of making it out to be. With the historic easing of domestic restrictions, Japan is posed to play a greater security role in South-east Asia than it already has, and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia in particular have already seen the benefits of this. And even if their rhetoric far too often outpaces reality, the growing role of other Asian states such as India and Russia ought not to be discounted.
China also faces some clear limits in advancing defence cooperation with South-east Asian states. Though some of these, like quality of defence equipment, can be overcome with time, the "trust deficit issue", as Chinese friends politely put it, will be more difficult to get past. South-east Asian states remain suspicious of China's rising military capabilities and its longer-term intentions. Beijing's behaviour in the South China Sea and its arm-twisting of individual Asean countries in cases like the seizure of Singapore's Terrex infantry carrier vehicles only compound such anxieties.
So while some are prone to hype up each incremental gain that China makes in the security realm in South-east Asia, it is also worth keeping these broader structural drivers, realities and constraints in mind.
- The writer is associate editor of The Diplomat magazine based in Washington, DC, and a doctoral candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University researching Asian security issues and US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific.
- S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.