A decade ago their focus was Mongolia and Russia, today it is the South and East China seas. In fact, Asean was lulled into believing that the rise of the Dragon would be peaceful. By the time the nations of Southeast Asia woke up, most of the sea had effectively been lost to the Chinese. When Vietnam, the only country with a spine in the region, challenged the encroachment, China played victim by accusing the other side of provoking its army and navy. What can the Philippines and Malaysia, with a few boats between them, do under the circumstances except grin and bear it?
Historically, China has played the same trick with the Tibetans and the Indians. First they send in a few yaks, cows and sheep to graze, then the People’s Liberation Army appears from nowhere to claim the territory as their own. The Chinese government brings out some moth-eaten maps to emphasise its authority, and then masks the real issue by waging a furious propaganda campaign of lies and obfuscation.
China hasn’t spared even Bhutan, one of the tiniest countries in the world, which is focused on “Gross Domestic Happiness” rather than prosperity. Two weeks ago, the Chinese brought heavy earth-moving equipment and began building a road through Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau. Now what should Bhutan do? The poor country has few troops to defend its borders and must instead rely on its friendship treaty with India to preserve its territory from incursions. What’s happening to timid and fearful Bhutan today could happen to Laos or Thailand tomorrow. If the two countries choose to ignore reality, the Mekong will be lost to the Chinese forever. There is a lesson to be learned for all foreign policy experts here in Asia: don’t cut any high-speed-train or military deals with China, since your children and grandchildren will have to pay for your indiscretions.
How much land does a huge country like China need? Should that question really be left to the philosophers to answer?