Saturday, October 15, 2005
China’s growing economic, political and diplomatic clout in the region is seen by some as a healthy counter- balance to US hegemony. But, asks Vaudine England, is it a fair trade?
I n ancient times, embassies from Southeast Asia’s tropical kingdoms carried gifts of silk, elephants and even daughters to the Middle Kingdom, the name China evoked to claim its place as the center of the world.
After a hiatus caused by more than a century of turmoil, war and revolution, the sending of tributes – both political and economic – and the implied acknowledgment of China’s central position, is back in a big way. But the nature of the gifts has changed.
“The history of Southeast Asia has always been associated with China. China has always seen us as tributary states,” said Panitan Wattanayagorn, associate professor in international relations at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
“Of course, we still pay gifts to China, we send tokens of appreciation in the hope it will leave us alone. But now we give it free trade, market share and more.”
Six hundred years after China’s famous admiral, Zheng He, traveled as far afield as the Indian Ocean and Africa’s east coast, Southeast Asian nations are eagerly tying up new relationships with the Middle Kingdom.
State-linked mainland companies are buying into the region’s utilities and industries, and new trade deals offer China unprecedented access to Southeast Asian resources and markets.
Mainland tourists are swarming across the region, bringing cheer to markets which are becoming old hat for more experienced travelers.
Chinese-language lessons are a new trend across the region as students prepare for the future. The Thai government is considering enforcing the study of Putonghua in all primary schools. Chinese-language newspapers cover the region.
Every new trade, investment and diplomatic link between Southeast Asia and the rest of the world now seems increasingly to have a China factor, but the results of the closer embrace are mixed, diplomats and academics conclude, with the power in often unequal relationships resting with China.
Economically, the benefits are increased trade and investment, as in a memorandum of understanding signed last month between China and Thailand to treble bilateral trade to US$50 billion (HK$390 billion) by 2010.
Vice-premier Wu Yi visited northern Thailand, Singapore and Brunei in September to lavish welcomes, part of a continuing trade and charm offensive that began in the late 1990s with China supporting an eventual free trade zone in Southeast and East Asia. Her delegation of handpicked business leaders went about snapping up local purchases and securing useful connections in a way that can only be envied by most Southeast Asian business communities.
Analysts sound some warning bells, however, about how such pacts can entrench an imbalance of power and proficiency.
In weaker countries, the trade balance is undoubtedly in China’s favor in its burgeoning business with Laos, Cambodia, Burma and even the Philippines.
China’s trade with ASEAN grew by an average of 75 percent a year from 1993 to 2003, according to a US Congressional Research Service report.
In 2003, for example, China exported goods worth US$295 million to Cambodia while importing just US$26 million. Burma imported US$910 million in Chinese goods for the same year, while selling US$169 million in products to China.
In the other direction, on the back of oil exports, Indonesia enjoyed a $1.2 billion surplus with China in 2003. China exported US$3.8 billion to Thailand while importing $8.8 billion from there.
“The Chinese are very clear. They come with selected companies from selected sectors. They know what they want whereas the Thai side has no clear policy. It’s very much one-way,” said Pavida Pananond, assistant professor at Thammasat University’s business school.
Less well-studied is the political impact of the new rush for favor.
Recent mainland propaganda lionizes Zheng He as the examplar of a “win-win” foreign policy based on China’s “peaceful rise.” But historians have noted Zheng He’s travels had profound military motivation and wide political impact.
The Ming dynasty of the 15th century was expansionist and its expeditions changed the map. Yunnan was annexed and Burma was brought into China’s orbit. China’s historic claim to the South China Sea was established. The oil- and gas-rich atolls of the Spratly and Paracel Islands were claimed.
From Sri Lanka to Sumatra, China had an impact on local politics.
Following the Ming dynasty’s inward-looking retreat from forays abroad and the communist revolution’s early years of navel-gazing and commune-building, China is back. It has made massive strides since the Korean and Cold Wars when Asia feared the export of communist insurgency.
Southeast Asian governments are responding to Beijing’s active regional diplomacy by focusing on the economic opportunities, setting aside historical fears. In many ways, this growing interest is appreciated by the region, at least as a counter-balance to what many Asian analysts have long seen as the heavy-handed approach of the United States.
“The Chinese idea is, we’ll help you and you’ll owe us. It’s a big brother attitude. China is now realizing its own potential and becoming more pro- active,” said Panitan.
The turnaround from political confrontation with China to wary accommodation, in just one generation, is striking.
“It’s a very different relationship to talk about US hegemony. China is more subtle, it is more indirect, it’s very Asian. The tribute system shows that. China doesn’t have to come and force you, but you pay tribute. It’s a patron- client relationship,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, assistant professor of international relations at Chulalongkorn University.
“Of course there are risks – Asian countries know it well. China is leaning a little bit more these days. [It has] more leverage. The accommodation then becomes much more challenging. It’s tougher these days. There’s a feeling it might take more to please the Chinese.”
China’s aloofness changed to regional engagement in the early 1990s when new Chinese faces suddenly appeared at regional meetings seeking friendship, wanting to listen and learn, to offer and receive help in Southeast Asia.
The big break came with the economic crisis of 1997. In contrast to what Asian politicians criticized as the stricture-ridden approach of the US, Beijing offered practical help, particularly by refusing to devalue the yuan.
“China was perceived as a friend in need so a friend indeed,” said Panitan.
America’s single-minded post-9/11 focus on its war on terror gave further openings to Chinese diplomacy, as Asian countries tired of viewing every bilateral issue through the forced prism of alleged terror.
This shift led to a 2002 declaration in Brunei heralding closer ties between China and Southeast Asia.
Now China also hosts regional talking shops and joins Southeast Asian security meetings, which would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.
It also makes its point of view known – as when a recent meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Laos presided over Burma’s decision to forego the rotating chair of the body.
This withdrawal had been demanded by rights groups and Asian members of parliament who felt Rangoon’s failure to move on democratic and human rights issues should preclude it from any leadership role in regional diplomacy.
China, however, with its extensive business and security interests in Burma, was not impressed by ASEAN’s maneuvers. Its foreign minister left the meeting for an unscheduled trip to Rangoon the next day, maintaining friendship in the face of regional – and US-backed – displeasure.
“China is very clever, because it also engages with the US. You see how sophisticated it has become. That tells you Southeast Asia is a theater for competing influences between the US and China,” said Panitan.
China’s growing strength, though exciting, also raises fears among some observers.
“China has this arrogance and can do what it wants,” said Thai senator Kraisak Choonhavan, head of the Senate’s foreign relations committee.
He cited difficulties faced by countries downstream of China on the Mekong River, where the mainland is building dams and blasting rapids.
The drive to make the Mekong both navigable and a source of electrical generating power at home has disrupted fishing, farming and local trading patterns downstream, raising worries among environmentalists and policymakers.
“Even when China builds all these dams on tributaries to the Mekong, affecting greater Mekong countries in very negative ways, those countries have been reluctant to say something,” Kraisak said.
Kraisak is still smarting from Chinese reaction to a recent meeting of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources at which several Thai NGOs, including senators, got the subject of downstream damage to the Mekong put on the agenda.
“It was raised by Cambodia, backed by Thailand and eventually backed by the whole Latin American group,” he said. “Then China just arrogantly walked out of the meeting.”
On other issues, the Chinese agenda is well known.
“China has its built-in superpower image, so while we can talk with China on many issues, we shouldn’t hit it in the face in public. I’m not saying it is closing more windows and doors – my point is that many countries are afraid to open them or knock on them. Southeast Asian countries are very sensitive to the views of China,” Kraisak said.
Beijing’s political concerns focus on three main subjects – Taiwan, Tibet and the Falun Gong.
Southeast Asian nations have long followed a one-China policy, nominally accepting Beijing’s description of Taiwan as a renegade province.
But they maintain vigorous economic links with Taiwan, one of the region’s largest investors, and the destination for large overseas worker populations from Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia.
“Before, we used to have Taiwan ministers come to play golf in Phuket. But these days I don’t think the Thai leadership would dare [let them],” said Thitinan.
Similarly, the subject of Tibet can be a sore point.
In July, Tashi Yangchen, an MBA student based in London who won an international contest as Miss Tibet, chose to withdraw from the 2005 Miss Tourism contest in Sarawak, Malaysia, when organizers demanded she be designated “Miss Tibet-China.”
“This year, we took precautions and consulted the Chinese embassy,” said Alaric Soh, organizer of the Malaysian pageant. Representing Tibet’s government in exile, Tashi was also ousted from a pageant in Zimbabwe in February due to Chinese pressure, news reports said.
As for the Falun Gong, the spiritual and physical exercise system banned in China as an evil cult, Southeast Asian nations have repeatedly given in to requests from Chinese embassies to deport, ban or censor Falun Gong followers.
In June this year, the Malaysian government banned the Epoch Times, a Falun Gong newspaper, which recently printed “Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party,” purporting to give an uncensored account of China’s leadership.
DZY Marketing, Malaysian distributor of the Epoch Times, said it received a letter on July 6 from the Malaysian National Security Bureau, stating its reports did “not accord with Malaysia’s policy of maintaining bilateral relationships between Malaysia and China.”
The Epoch Times, which is produced and distributed in more than 30 countries, claimed earlier this year its printers in Hong Kong were pressured not to take the newspaper’s custom, but a last-minute deal saved the paper from closure here.
In June 2003, Swedish housewife Pirjo Svensson was detained and then expelled from Thailand after Thai police searched her apartment and confiscated literature relating to Falun Gong. Her arrest coincided with the visit to Thailand by top Chinese leaders.
The Swedish embassy lodged an official protest at the time, describing the Thai action as “hard to comprehend” and expressing regret that Thailand was failing in its international obligations to protect human rights and democracy.
“Particularly in Southeast Asia, the Chinese government has an increasingly large influence on political matters,” said Falun Gong Hong Kong spokeswoman Sharon Xu.
“China has learned how to use its economic power to achieve political ends. The pressure is through diplomatic and commercial channels because lots of the local elites across the region are [ethnic] Chinese with big interests in China.”
Diplomacy always involves compromise and accommodation, but some voices in Southeast Asia are beginning to question how one-sided the relationship with China has become.
An editorial published in July by The Nation, an English-language newspaper in Thailand, marked three decades of Sino-Thai relations with a warning that ever-closer ties were unbalanced.
“China’s repression of the Falun Gong was adopted enthusiastically by Thailand, despite the fact that the kingdom is famous for religious tolerance and freedom of worship. In other words, while China continues to push the differences it has with Thailand and exploit the commonalities, Thailand tends to stress the importance of shared views and is reluctant to point up differences,” said The Nation.
In Indonesia, where Chinese residents were massacred in 1966 in an anti- communist frenzy, one sign of growing closeness to Beijing was Jakarta’s ban on a march by Falun Gong supporters in March 2002 – after several years of mass demonstrations by missile- throwing youths had been tolerated across Jakarta’s streets.
“We explained to police and also to some Indonesian government officials that the Falun Gong is an evil cult. So Indonesian parties took some measures to limit their activity. We appreciate their efforts,” Chinese embassy press officer He Shiqing said at the time.
The stakes are growing ever higher for Southeast Asian ties with China. The key, analysts say, is to secure as good a deal as possible in line with national self-interest and, if regional bodies are clever enough, parlay China’s growing role as a counter-balance to the US for greater benefits.
“We have a form of tacit understanding so when it involves Chinese nationals or Chinese interests, then we follow Beijing. We consider these issues are quite sensitive and central to Beijing, so we more or less comply,” said Razak Baginda, executive director of the Malaysian Strategic Research Center, a private think-tank, explaining the actions of governments across the region.
“If it involves Chinese nationals, we listen to Beijing. Regarding the newspaper [ban], we acted on instructions from Beijing. We stay silent on the annexation of Tibet. China is exerting its influence for sure.
“It appears to be the case that Southeast Asian governments are kowtowing to China. But we all do so for different reasons and for our own benefit. By giving in on items which are relatively small or of less strategic importance to ourselves, then China doesn’t disturb us on, say, the Spratly Islands, which are significant to our national security interests,” he said.
In the wake of Thailand’s latest economic deal with China, The Nation warned in an editorial of the dangers of neglecting traditional ties with Japan and the US in favor of the China buzz.
“Thailand snuggling up to China may be an understandable tactical move. But putting all of its eggs in the Chinese basket may be unwise,” it said.
Thitinan added: “Asians countries still want the US in the region, for balance. They are mindful of China’s assertiveness.”