As the world’s most populous country and the fourth largest economy, China has undeniable global influence. Chinese President Hu Jintao’s meeting this week in Washington with U.S. President George W. Bush, their fifth in little over a year, further underscores Beijing’s central role on the global stage.
China’s growing influence is felt perhaps most strongly closer home in South-east Asia.
Equally, South-east Asia figures prominently in China’s world view. It is a source of raw materials, a market for China’s goods and services, and a shipping route for the energy needed to power its economy, according to Ricky Carandang, an anchor-reporter for ABS-CBN News Channel in the Philippines.
In the 1990s, ”China made a conscious effort to make South-east Asia a closer part of its sphere of influence,”Carandang said at a recent seminar in Washington DC sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA and the Asia Society. ”But many countries interpreted the way China asserted itself as sabre rattling. In recent years, China changed its strategy.”
One sign of what Carandang terms China’s “charm offensive” has been its policy toward the Spratlys, a group of islands in the South China Sea claimed by China and wholly or partly by Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei.
“China’s positioning in the 1990s was quite aggressive,” he notes. “It was building up facilities there, intimidating other claimants.” Fearful of China, the Philippines moved closer to the United States by signing the Visiting Forces Agreement in 1999.
But China then shifted gears. In 2004, it signed an agreement with the Philippine government to explore jointly the area around the Spratlys for possible undersea oil.
China’s pursuit of mutual economic benefit – rather than military conflict or ideological confrontation – has also led to strengthened ties with Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia.
Trade has gone a long way toward tempering longstanding anti- Chinese sentiment in the region. In Indonesia, for instance, lingering memories of Cold War animosities, the anti-Chinese riots in 1998, and perceived territorial ambitions in the South China Sea left many citizens concerned about Chinese intentions at the end of the 1990s.
“Until 2000 everything Chinese was banned in Indonesia: Chinese medicine, Chinese publications,” explains Yuli Ismartono, executive editor of Indonesia’s ‘Tempo Weekly News’. “Now all things Chinese are accepted, from Chinese banks to Chinese motorcycles. We even have dragon dances in celebration of the Chinese New Year.”
One of the major vehicles for China’s improved image in the region has been the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN). Beijing was one of the founding members of the ASEAN Regional Forum, a security and confidence-building mechanism. And China has moved quickly to build a free trade area with ASEAN. In 2006, ASEAN is China’s fourth largest trading partner after the European Union, United States, and Japan.
Relations between China and South-east Asia are not entirely rosy. Ismartono pointed out, for instance, that Chinese companies are not particularly interested in the environmental impact of their production or the corporate accountability of their operations, all of which concerns Indonesian civil society.
Filipino activists are similarly worried about a lack of transparency in economic deals. Several years ago, Carandang recounted, China invested a lot of money into upgrading a portion of the Philippine rail system. “If the deal had been done with the U.S. or Japan, there would have been an insistence on public bidding, congressional oversight, and all the other elements of good governance,” he says. “But with China it was just done with a handshake.”
China’s growing influence in South-east Asia, both bilaterally and through ASEAN, inevitably comes up against U.S. interests in the region. Washington maintains close bilateral ties with the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand. But U.S. military policy in the Middle East and its focus on the war on terrorism has buoyed anti-Americanism in the region, particularly among Muslims.
For the U.S., “South-east Asia was supposed to be part of the arc of containment against China,” argues John Gershman, co- director of Foreign Policy in Focus, a U.S. think tank. “But post 9-11, U.S. foreign policy has been very narrowly focused on instrumentalising South-east Asia as part of the war of terror.”
Gershman points to narrow bilateral cooperation on anti-terrorism efforts and diminished U.S. interest in regional cooperation with, for instance, Condoleezza Rice skipping last July’s ASEAN annual meetings. “It’s not a partnership, not a collaboration” between the United States and South-east Asia, he adds. “There’s been no U.S. commitment to democracy-building in the region.”
Bambang Harymurti, editor-in-chief of Indonesia’s ‘Tempo Weekl’y, is excited that “more than a billion people are increasing their prosperity” in China. But he remains apprehensive that Chinese leaders “will use their power to the detriment of democracy in my country” and is “worried that the wrong U.S. foreign policy might trigger China to move in this direction.” He recommends that Washington pay more attention to the “soft power” of economic and cultural influence, not just the “hard power” of the military.
The Philippine government, meanwhile, has “done good job of maximising relations with both China and the United States,” says Carandang. “It has deftly extracted advantage from both countries.”
China’s influence on South-east Asia depends to a certain degree on the trajectory of domestic change. Panelists were sceptical that Chinese economic growth could continue at near double-digit rates. A slowdown of growth or an economic collapse would have dramatic impact on its neighbouring economies to the south.
China’s political transformation remains an equally influential question mark. “If China becomes democratic, it will be the largest democracy in the world,” says Bambang Harymurti, adding that such a development would improve security relations in the region “because democracies do not wage war against each other.”
Carandang viewed internal political change within China somewhat differently. “I don’t think that China aspires to be a Western-style democracy. China is evolving its own system. As long as they don’t threaten their neighbors, I don’t think it’s anyone’s concern how they evolve,” he said.
In the competition for influence in the region, geography may well be the deciding factor: China is near and the U.S.far away.
“However much ASEAN embraces the West, South-east Asia will always be more important to China than it will be to the United States or Japan,” concludes Carandang. “South-east Asia is the backyard of China. There is a cultural tie between China and South- east Asia that is just as long as the one between the U.S. and Western Europe.”
Inter Press Service, April 20, 2006