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Asian Neighbors Wary of China, Uncertain About Regional Security

FILE - This screen grab from a June 1, 2014 video shows a Chinese Coast Guard ship 46001 chasing a Vietnamese vessel near to the site of the Chinese oil rig in the disputed waters in the South China Sea, off Vietnam's central coast.

Just half a year ago, China and Vietnam were wrangling over who owns what in the South China Sea while Vietnamese citizens like Nguyen Thanh Hai looked on with concern. Observers floated the possibility that clashes could break out.

Today, both sides have ratcheted down the rhetoric, promising to use a direct hotline to solve maritime disputes. Hai, a motorbike taxi driver, no longer fears that China will attack his far smaller country.

“It’s peaceful now,” Hai, 49, said while having lunch at a street stall. “It’ll stay that way because China doesn’t dare go to war. There are too many countries condemning it.”

Many countries are certainly watching China, but there are mixed feelings about whether it will keep the peace in Asia.

Those less sanguine than Hai say that Asia’s overall security provisions have not kept pace with its economic boom. Specifically, outsiders worry that Asian nations haven’t used their recent riches to invest in institutions that foster stability around the region. Instead, they are pouring money into a new arms race.

“This is the only region in the world where, for the last 25 years, defense budgets have grown and grown and grown. No other region has the same statistics,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, chair of the Munich Security Conference, speaking at the Asia-Pacific Conference of German Business in Ho Chi Minh City last month.

Another Ukraine?

Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the United States, pointed to the recent bloodshed in Ukraine between pro-Russian and pro-western factions. Europe has struggled to bridge this divide, even with its strong institutions, so Ischinger wondered if the situation would be worse in Asia, which is less equipped, if a similar spat erupted here.

The comparison is more than theoretical. China closely monitors Ukraine because it opposes foreign intervention there, just as it balks at western countries getting involved in its conflicts with Japan, the Philippines, India, and others in Asia.

David Shambaugh, China Policy Program director at George Washington University, said the atmosphere has been especially calm in recent weeks. But that doesn’t mean Asia is immune from a Ukraine-like flare-up.

“Certain unanticipated events could produce very cataclysmic events,” Shambaugh said. He cited the events that led to World War I as an example.

Shambaugh said other Asian countries perceived heightened aggression from China around 2009 and 2010. While Washington officials regularly deny that the military “pivot” to Asia is meant to restrain the continent’s biggest player, Shambaugh said the United States is now turning to the Pacific as a “direct reaction to Asian nervousness about China.”

Trade could keep the peace

Should a great clash of civilizations arise, it would be a “nightmare” for Southeast Asian countries to have to choose between China and the United States, according to Amitav Acharya, a professor at American University’s School of International Service.

But they might not have to make that choice. As the political science cliché goes, countries that trade with one another don’t go to war. Acharya told Voice of America that Asians are more interlinked than ever, not just through trade, but also through connected supply chains and financial transactions. China would not threaten its trade routes by taking up arms, he said, especially if it wants to be a superpower.

“If the whole region is against you, you have to be absolutely stupid if you think you can still lead,” he said.

Acharya rejected the notion that Asia lacked institutions. There may be no NATO equivalent, but it does have groups like APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum.

“I actually think Southeast Asia is much more stable than most people think it is,” he said, going on to add, “Maybe Asia will achieve stability in a different way than Europe has.”