China is not a ‘status quo’ power but one that would like to alter Asia’s balance of power in its own favor – Condoleezza Rice, 2000
As the 14th ASEAN summit gets ready to kick off in Pattaya, Thailand this week, climate change may be an unlikely source of debate. The role of climate action in ASEAN nations is intricately linked to the looming presence of China, and lately China-ASEAN cooperation has bloomed. Chinese sources in particular stress the importance of “mutually beneficial cooperation” with ASEAN on economic and climate issues. In fact, the ASEAN secretariat and China’s environment ministry recently inked a draft environmental protection strategy (see sidebar) focusing heavily on climate change. Moreover, last September ASEAN secretary general Surin Pitsuwan praised a memorandum of understanding between ASEAN and China’s Guangdong province.
However, what these innocuous news clips are masking is a fiery debate about China’s influence over Southeast Asia. Since China and Thailand composed a free-trade agreement in 2003, bilateral trade has risen 35.8% between the two countries. Why Thailand? Many claim that this is Thailand’s reward for acquiescing to China’s expansionist aims and bullying tactics among ASEAN nations. Will China’s size and influence enrich economic growth in ASEAN nations and foster partnerships on environmental protection and climate change? Or, as Chinese general Liu Chengjun believes, are territorial disputes more likely as the effects of climate change coupled with economic crisis increase competition for resources?
“The tendency for China to offer economic incentives for smaller states to fall in line with Chinese strategic thinking (and economically punish those that do not)” is a far-reaching source of contention and no doubt intimately linked with climate change efforts. Unnervingly, China has openly stated that environmental action will not come “at the expense of economic development.” With the full economic power of China enveloping Southeast Asia and its forging ever more close-knit ties with Chinese markets, what realistic opportunities will there be for ASEAN nations to embark on meaningful climate remediation programs free of Chinese pressure to develop? Furthermore, if ASEAN leaders begin answering only to China, what will be ASEAN’s relevance for Southeast Asian countries?