Chinese Military and Commercial Expansion is Raising Tensions in Southeast Asia

The military growth of China is currently escalating tensions between other Asian nations. The Chinese government increased military spending by 12 percent in 2014 to over $130 billion USD. Strikingly China’s growth in military expenditure has outpaced GDP growth since 1997. Aggressive commercial expansion with a disregard for international borders in the South China Sea has many Southeast Asian nations concerned. Nations in the region fear that China will use its military to protect its commercial expansion into the South China Sea. While war in Asia is unlikely, China’s growing power is potentially endangering ethnic Chinese communities throughout Asia. There are tens of millions of ethnic Chinese currently living throughout Southeast Asia and with rising tension between China and these nations these communities are at risk of ethnic violence.

Chinese military expansion has become a problem in the recent past because China made land claims in the South China Sea that contradicts the maritime borders implemented by the UN. These claims not only include commercial rights in the sea, but also various archipelagos. Right now China’s claims overlaps and conflicts with Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei’s maritime borders. China has already positioned oil rigs and attempted constructing buildings on some of the contested claims. As a result, these countries have viewed China’s military buildup as expansionist and are concerned over China possibly taking the contested archipelagos by force. This distrust of Chinese intentions leaves the Chinese communities in Southeast Asia vulnerable to prejudice and racism.

Southeast Asia has a history of oppression and discriminatory practices towards people of Chinese descent. In the 1960s, the Indonesian state and military targeted ethnic Chinese communities in their hunt for communists. In this case, Chinese people were profiled as communist sympathizers because of their ethnicity. Even as recently as 1998, riots in Jakarta over high food prices devolved into anti-Chinese attacks. In the Philippines boycotts on Chinese products are gaining popularity. However recent protests were geared towards China, not the Chinese communities in the Philippines. The boycotts protest Chinese land claims on Filipino land. The Manila government also accused China of attempting to build an airstrip or a military base on a Filipino archipelago. Manila responded by taking China to the international court and more American troops were allowed to be stationed on Filipino land.

Malaysia is a strong example of ethnic tensions caused by China’s military endeavours. The Malaysian parliamentary system was founded on the principle that each political party would represent their respective ethnic group. Therefore the United Malays National Organization represents the Malays and the Malaysian Chinese association represents the Chinese. Since Malaysia’s independence the political system has been dominated by the Malay ethnic party. In 2015 a protest known as the Yellow Shirt rally – because protest members chose to wear yellow shirts to show their solidarity – called for the resignation of the Prime Minister due to concerns about his economic policy. The ethnic makeup of this protest was primarily Chinese, due to this, local level Malay politicians accused the Yellow Shirt protest of being a Chinese conspiracy to gain political power over ethnic Malays. In response, Malay nationalists organized the Red Shirt rally that saw several thousand supporters gather to promote Malay political dominance. Participants of the Red Shirt rally stated that the Chinese are stealing the Malays’ rights and control the economy. The Malaysian government has even gone so far as to ban yellow t-shirts from protest movements. Despite the lack of racial stigma in the Yellow Shirt protest, the situation generated tensions around an ethnic binary. The racist undertones expressed in the Red Shirt rally contradict the reported unity of Southeast Asian nations and shows that ethnic Chinese communities are at risk.

In 2014, fifteen foreign owned factories were set on fire in Vietnam to protest a Chinese oil rig that was moved into Vietnamese waters. The protesters targeted buildings with Chinese characters on them. Reuters reported sixteen Chinese and five Vietnamese people died in the riots. Many ethnic Chinese fled from Vietnam to Cambodia after the incident. On a governmental level, Hanoi officially denounced China’s actions. Vietnamese and Chinese ships clashed around the oil rig. The ships used their water cannons against the opposing nation’s ships and intentionally rammed into each other. The Vietnam anti-Chinese riots did not just affect China, but resulted in Chinese flight and deaths.

Chinese military and commercial expansion in the region will be the major point of contention in South East Asia. The difficulty in interpreting Southeast Asian militarization comes from the many different ways the population self identifies. There are no hard binaries in the region, with many different ethnic, religious, ideological, linguistic, class, and nationalist groups all being a part of the mosaic. The militarization of Southeast Asia appears to be escalating to conflict, but given expansive trade in the region it seems more likely tensions will eventually subside over time. What will become a major issue is how ethnic Chinese will be treated in Southeast Asia over the next decade. Many countries have a history of mistreatment towards Chinese. As China continues their military and commercial expansion, anti-Chinese sentiment will continue to rise in Southeast Asia. In the end, a fear of China and Chinese people will become more predominant in the public.

It will not be too long until these racist notions — coupled with China’s vast military expansion — lead to ethnic violence directed towards Chinese communities in Southeast Asia.

Roy Tannar

Roy is a fourth year International Relations student at the University of British Columbia.

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