China would not be able to match the US influence in East Asia and Southeast Asia because of the former’s expansionist actions, including its military presence in the West Philippine Sea, that alienate its neighbors, according to Richard McGregor, senior fellow for East Asia at Lowy Institute in Australia.
“China simply does not have the trust of its neighboring countries to allow it [to] exercise the kind of role that Americans have. That’s why I think we are sort of moving into a very difficult period as these quite natural and quite intractable conflicts try to work themselves out,” McGregor, who is also a non-resident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the United States, said in a recent forum hosted by think tank Stratbase ADR Institute in Makati City.
McGregor, a former journalist with extensive experience writing about high-level politics in East Asia, said many countries in the region distrust China because of its expansionist actions, including its incursions into Philippine territorial waters.
He said the US has no territorial disputes in the region, in contrast to China’s actions that have caused maritime disputes with many countries.
“So you look at China and you look at the Air Defense Identification Zone, you look at the Exclusive Economic Zone of the SEA, you look at actual territory. China has disputes with South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and that’s all of course without thinking of Taiwan,” McGregor said.
McGregor said while only a few countries trust China and have worked out their disputes with China, the maritime situation in Asia will be “highly unstable in the next decade or two.”
He said while top Chinese leaders discuss diplomacy in international meetings, it appears that its military actions are a separate thing.
“Obviously because China is richer, therefore they can do all sorts of things they wanted to do, they are more confident in using their military in a sort of arm in their diplomatic toolkit,” said McGregor.
McGregor said China is actually prepared to handle its conflicts on different fronts. “So China’s priorities—Taiwan, East China Sea, South China Sea or West Philippine Sea—these are all now within reach, and so China talks about it lot more and prepares for that a lot more,” he said.
He said that while China President Xi Jinping went to Davos during the World Economic Forum to discuss open border, win-win cooperation and integration, he relayed a purely different message in China focusin on becoming a world leader.
“At home, the internal focus of China is getting the lead in technology so it can do to America what it thinks America is doing to it. So, it’s about that using your power,” said McGregor, referring to the economy and technology as an instrument of power.
McGregor, responding to an open forum question on the possibility of war between the US and China, said “China, the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] strategize for it, they budget fort, they exercise for it, they plan for it, but they don’t want to invade Taiwan.”
“The most likely one, and this of course will have a direct and immediate result in the Philippines and would be a kind of blockade, is China would simply declare that Taiwan was part of the China Customs Zone and they would decide everything that goes in and out.”
McGregor also said, “China will be doing everything to make sure that you’re [the Philippines] not involved, that Japan is not involved, though it’s almost impossible to keep Japan out, and that Australia which is more distant but just as interested, is not involved at the same time.”
“The huge advantage is deterrence to prevent China from doing anything radical at all like that,” said McGregor, who is an expert in China’s political system and China’s foreign relations with Japan, the two Koreas and Southeast Asia.