Is the Dragon's power a threat to the Mekong region?
The role of China in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) is directly linked with the North-South Corridor, a transportation route where the improvement of regional infrastructure and road construction has instigated extensive cross-border movement of goods, people and capital.
The prominent role of China is apparent from an investment in the construction of a large dam in Myanmar, and from the influx of Chinese goods into major points in the Mekong region such as Vientiane and Thailand’s border towns of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai.
This role is even more extensive if we consider Chinese assistance and trade with Myanmar and Cambodia. Apart from providing assistance in the form of public utilities and road construction in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, China is also the largest foreign investor in Vietnam.
The Greater Mekong Subregion is important to China in two aspects. One is the economic aspect in which China has the upper hand as GMS countries depend on Chinese trade and investment.
However, in the aspect of non-traditional security or the non-economic aspect, the GMS is highly significant as the main route connecting China to South and Southeast Asia.
It is the main energy transportation route to China's western region and provides natural resources as copper, iron ore, tin and food products. GMS countries’ political policies and support are vital to China in the ongoing conflicts in the South China Sea.
They also provide a policy base for China’s involvement and promotion of international relations among Asean member states.
China must realise that many states are still uneasy and doubtful about its role following the earlier notion of “Chinese threats”. For this reason, China has tried to convince the global community since the early 2000s that its outstanding growth and development are nothing but a “peaceful rise”.
The primary objective for China’s introduction of the “peaceful rise” notion is to refute the earlier perception of “China as a threat” and to assure Asian countries and the United States that China’s impressive economic growth and military strength will never pose a threat to global peace and stability. On the contrary, other countries will benefit from China’s progress.
China’s main interest is to achieve continuing economic growth and social stability which will ensure internal political stability.
At present, the Chinese government’s pressing concerns are with its internal problems that will have a great impact on the nation’s future.
Despite the focus on internal political stability based on physical integration and national unity together with sustainable socio-economic progress, China has never overlooked the contribution of its foreign policy to the domestic scene. A stable external environment has always been China’s covert foreign policy.
The high expectation that the Chinese people demand from its government is to see continuing economic progress for China while the government needs internal political stability to meet such expectations. Xi Jinping, the current president, has proposed the “Chinese Dream” concept as the main goal and new direction for China.
When Mr Xi became president in 2012 the Chinese economy had already begun to slow down. His “Chinese Dream” which is a dream of “a great revival of the Chinese nation”, therefore, implies the goal of social and economic revival to maintain growth.
Nevertheless, China’s recent activities have raised certain concerns about its direction in the international community.
Some of these activities are the “Maritime Silk Road” strategy, the “One Belt One Road” policy, investment offers for the construction of a dual track railway system in Thailand and the high-speed train systems in both Indonesia and Thailand, the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and land reclamation activities in the South China Sea for maritime and military strategy purposes.
China’s conflicts with a number of Asean member states in the South China Sea have political ramifications not only in the Greater Mekong Subregion but also to other parts of the world.
China’s recent projects and involvement reflect an interest in its political and military stability rather than in economic stability. Southeast Asia has become China’s connecting point in these activities.
The big question now is whether China’s efforts to exert influence over the region reflect a return to the negative image of China as a threat perceived by Asean and GMS countries.
Ukrist Pathmanand is Director of Mekong Study Centre and Deputy Director of Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University.