By Joshua Kurlantzick, Council on Foreign Relations, 05 January 2016
In its own “pivot” of sorts, China looks set to pursue broader ties in the Asia-Pacific region in 2016, advancing initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and ramping up maritime and land trade corridors. Seven experts assess the challenges and opportunities in China’s relations with Southeast Asia, Japan, Central Asia, South Asia, the Korean Peninsula, and Australia in the next year.
China’s relations with Southeast Asian nations, which had warmed significantly in the mid-2000s, have since settled somewhere between cool and downright icy. While 2015 saw a thawing of relations, coastal Southeast Asian nations, like Vietnam and the Philippines, continued upgrading their navies and coast guards, building relations with the United States to hedge against Chinese power, and searching for novel strategies to constrain China’s ambitions. At the same time, some mainland Southeast Asian nations, such as Laos and Thailand, not directly affected by regional maritime disputes, seemed increasingly comfortable with China’s ascendance into a major Southeast Asian power.
In 2016, China will almost surely continue its assertive diplomacy and military actions in Southeast Asia, and despite the slight cooling of tensions, these policies could easily give way to a China-Vietnam or China-Philippines standoff in the South China Sea. Chinese leaders have publicly argued that state petroleum companies have the right to continue exploring in the South China Sea—an assertion that, eventually, Beijing will likely back up by moving rigs into the disputed waters, as it did in 2014. In the past year, China has threatened Vietnamese, Australian, and U.S. vessels that traveled near territory where China has reportedly built up and militarized small atolls. This approach will likely continue, especially in Beijing’s dealings with Hanoi, which China perceives as the most significant Southeast Asian threat to China’s South China Sea claims.