Beijing’s power to win friends and influence people

Richard Halloran – The South China Morning Post

Copyright The South China Morning Post
Jan 15, 2008
Much that is discussed about China’s foreign policy and security posture today revolves around its military – warships and fighter jets bought from Russia, 1,300 missiles aimed at Taiwan and the latest manoeuvres by the People’s Liberation Army.
There’s another side to China’s emerging might, however; what some pundits call “soft power”, “smiling diplomacy” or the “charm offensive”. Most of that effort is the application of China’s expanding economy to trade, aid and investment to achieve political ends.
In a wider context, China’s soft power seems integral to what may be a campaign to revive the Middle Kingdom, the China of yesteryear that dominated Asia. Chinese armies won’t march across international borders; rather, Beijing seeks to acquire such political, economic, and diplomatic clout that major decisions in every Asian capital will require Chinese approval.
According to China scholar Joshua Kurlantzick: “China may want to shift influence away from the United States to create its own sphere of influence, a kind of Chinese Monroe Doctrine for Southeast Asia [where] countries would subordinate their interests to China’s, and would think twice about supporting the US.”
US president James Monroe proclaimed in 1823 that outside powers would not be permitted to intervene in western hemisphere affairs.
In a fresh assessment, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) in Washington, asserts that China has been mostly, but not completely, successful in Southeast Asia: “Beijing has largely allayed Southeast Asian concerns that China poses a military or economic threat,” it says. In contrast, the US is perceived as having “waning or limited attention” to Southeast Asia.
China’s ability to influence Southeast Asians, the CRS report contends, “largely stems from its role as a major source of foreign aid, trade and investment”. In addition, overseas Chinese communities in almost every Southeast Asian nation “have long played important parts in the economies, societies and cultures of Southeast Asian states”.
One set of figures is illuminating. China’s imports of Southeast Asian goods from 1997 to 2006 soared 674 per cent, to US$89.5 billion. In the same period, US imports rose 57 per cent, to US$111 billion. When the 2007 figures are in, China will probably have bought more from Southeast Asia than the US.
The Chinese have concentrated their economic assistance on Myanmar and Laos, and on Cambodia, reached through Laos. They are the poorest countries in the region. Beijing has lent Vietnam large sums for railways, hydropower projects and shipbuilding yards. Compared with its influence in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, however, the CRS report says “China’s influence in Vietnam is relatively limited”.
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