Everything China does is magnified a billion-fold: Its cough becomes a roar; its twitch, a flexing bicep.
Yes, China has changed — and arguably, for the better. Yet the more Southeast Asia is lulled into a seeming serenity, so do the trappings of a false sense of security increase.
Southeast Asia doesn’t fear China, but Beijing’s paroxysms of power are cause for suspicion. Five reasons explain why political-security relations with China require circumspection.
The first is China’s rhetorical bullying, through official and alternative channels, on territorial issues.
Border disputes are common among neighbors. But few employ open threats to its neighbors as a tactical approach as has Beijing.
Take the US. It too has disputes, with Canada, for example, not least of which are Washington’s demands for unfettered navigation in the Northwest Passage.
But it is unheard for Washington to make military threats, veiled or otherwise, against Ottawa.
Last week the Beijing-based Global Times published an abrasive editorial warning claimants in the South China Sea to prepare “for the sounds of cannons”.
“We need to be ready for that as it may be the only way for the disputes in the seas to be resolved,” the editorial read.
Beijing can claim this is an independent opinion, but they cannot expect our naïveté as to believe that there is no choreography in a country where information is tightly scrutinized, especially from a broadsheet published under the aegis of the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of China’s Communist Party.
The second is the divergence between China and much of the region on internal transparency. The fact is that in an authoritarian (albeit
market-oriented state), internal
politics are opaque.
The fingers caressing the buttons of mass destruction, the conservatives who supplant communism with ultra-nationalism and the militant factions whose defense budget is larger than India, Japan and South Korea combined have all been shielded from the dialectics of free debate.
We can thus only take the charm of Beijing’s diplomacy at face value, and must always be wary of hidden agendas.
We know well the deviousness of such a backdrop. For decades the Foreign Ministry lobbied and debated the world about Indonesia’s “incorporation” of East Timor, yet the ministry itself had little bearing on policy making, which was dominated by a hard-line military and an acquiescent Palace.
As the Dalai Lama said earlier this year: The enemy is not China, it is hard-line Communists.
The third reason for caution is China’s blatant “support” of totalitarian regimes. Many, including Indonesia, have ties with Myanmar and North Korea. However, only China is propping up these despots.
What does this say of a country’s respect for values based on an international system that prizes people as citizens instead of objects?
The fourth is China’s tendency to over-react when engaging neighbors. This is conduct unbecoming of a regional anchor.
China’s fishing boat incident with Japan last year was an example of using a cannon to deal with an ant-sized problem.
Rather than calmly negotiating an exit strategy, Beijing’s top brass stopped high-level talks. Even Premier Wen Jiabao stoked tensions when he warned that “China will take further action and the Japanese side shall bear all the consequences”.
China has had a traumatic track record of using blunt force on its immediate neighbors (our friends), i.e., its 1962 confrontation with India and 1979 hostilities with Vietnam.
In comparison, the United States is equally guilty of unilateralism, aka global bullying. Yet over the same period its major engagements — Grenada, Libya, Iraq, Panama, Bosnia, Kosovo, Vietnam, Afghanistan — were against “insignificant” neighbors or its (ideologically) diametric opposites.
Much has been forgiven, but history doesn’t forget that a generation ago China engaged in wars that claimed over 20,000 Asian lives.
Carrots and sticks are innate in diplomacy. But China isn’t some middle power waving a “stick”, it is a Goliath swinging a spiked iron maul!
It must be said that the fifth predicament — its sheer size — is no fault of China’s own.
Its mammoth population, millennia of history, vast land mass, and growing economic prowess have instinctively made everyone cagey. For a similar reason, this is why Singapore, despite its advanced economy, is forever wary of Indonesia.
This is why China must learn to tread and speak more softly. The onus is on them to assuage these concerns if it doesn’t want latent fear to undermine a vision of Asia’s interconnected future.
The late Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau said living next to the United States was “like sleeping with an elephant”.
“No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt,” he explained.
Trudeau’s cheeky remark has resonance in Southeast Asia.
When you sleep with a fire dragon, either by intent or accident, you will get burned.
- Wary of China, Its Southern Neighbors Court India (YaleGlobal ) (thuytinhvo.wordpress.com)
- Asia’s Great Naval Rivalry (Wall Street Journal) (thuytinhvo.wordpress.com)
- Panetta starts visit to Asia with praise for China (CNN) (thuytinhvo.wordpress.com)
- Beijing wastes no time with Noda (Japan Times) (thuytinhvo.wordpress.com)
- Japan’s South China Sea trip: Who will weeping? (thuytinhvo.wordpress.com)
- Asia: South China Sea: Beijing and Manila summit worries Hanoi (Asia News) (thuytinhvo.wordpress.com)
- Aquino says China to be ‘reasonable’ (ABS-CBNnews) (thuytinhvo.wordpress.com)