Are Chinese investments in Vietnam harmful?

China and Cambodia - too close for ASEAN?

Since its foundation, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has struggled with the balancing act between cohesion and maintaining its own interests in the face of geopolitical challenges. When it was founded, ASEAN was supposed to resolve territorial conflicts that arose in the course of decolonization, then it functions as an anti-communist bloc. This was over with the accession of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar in the 1990s at the latest. The principle of non-interference was enshrined in the ASEAN chart in 2007 in order to guarantee the functioning of the diverse region as a union - especially for economic purposes.

But in a region of socialist states, monarchies, democracies and dictatorships with sometimes diametrically opposed interests, conflicts are inevitable. In these cases, the debate about whether there should be more basic political consensus in ASEAN is given a new impetus. Most recently, there was a new trigger for the discussion at the end of October. A former senior diplomat from Singapore proposed at an academic forum that Cambodia and Laos be kicked out of ASEAN. As a reason, he cited their proximity to China, which would thus have too much influence on Southeast Asian politics through the two member states. In response, there was an angry letter from several Cambodian diplomats. It says: "He fabricated a torrent of misleading and erroneous statements that are intellectually deceptive and normatively harmful for the region, especially for ASEAN." The dispute was not commented on at the official level.

China's rise divides ASEAN, for some countries it is frightening, for others it promises profit. Vietnam has historically had a conflicted relationship with China. Although both countries are culturally similar and socialist brother states, there is strong anti-Chinese resentment in Vietnam. These are due to the 1,000-year occupation of Vietnam by China and continue to have an impact through several military conflicts, most recently in the 1970s. The conflict in the South China Sea is fueling concerns among the Vietnamese people about a renewed attack on China.

In stark contrast to this is Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen welcomes Chinese investment in the country. Whether in industry, infrastructure or tourism, China is omnipresent in Cambodia. The tourist destination Sihanoukville, for example, is now a casino paradise for Chinese visitors. There, the Chinese mafia came with the investments - and the Chinese police, as the Cambodian police were helpless in the face of the machinations. A certain influence of China cannot be denied.

Hun Sen supports Chinese positions in his politics, also in the ASEAN network. Cambodia prevented joint ASEAN resolutions on the conflict in the South China Sea or the future of the Mekong, both of which are central issues for the other Southeast Asian states. Something similar is happening in Laos and Myanmar is balancing between its own and Chinese interests. With the New Silk Road initiative, China is advancing further and further into the region.

The question arises as to how ASEAN could deal with this global political question. The exclusion of individual countries is probably not a realistic scenario, because the ASEAN statutes might not even allow this step. In addition, the meaning and goal of an already diverse union would have to be completely redefined. Reforming individual principles in ASEAN would be easier, for example restricting consensus-based decision-making. But there is currently no political will to do this either. Instead, states are looking for a global political counterweight for the region. These include the USA and the quad countries (Australia, India and Japan), but also the EU as an important trading partner. The EU, in turn, is looking for a suitable line in order not to mute itself politically in the region and still punish human rights violations. This happened most recently with the withdrawal of the “Everything but Arms” trade preferences for Cambodia and Myanmar. While supporters welcomed that the EU was finally responding to serious human rights violations, opponents criticized that the withdrawal would only drive the countries further economically into the arms of China.

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