China and the Pilot Fish to the South
Southern China’s balmy Nanning, a city of pell-mell construction, tower cranes and heavy industry with a dash of pleasant riverside, is busy sprucing up for worldwide fame when leaders and lackeys from Beijing and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) jet in to officially commemorate 15 years of relations on 30 October.
Don’t expect a dour summit. There should be plenty of pomp, ceremony and razzmatazz because unofficially Beijing, at least, will be celebrating not only the first meeting with presidents and prime ministers from Southeast Asia in China, but a successful debut in multilateral relations that casts China as a peaceful, engaged and cooperative rising power.
It is an image Beijing eagerly cultivates with the world – never mind the million rifles pointing at Taiwan – trying to counter some pundits and American politicians who paint China as a boorish, selfish and arrogant state determined to reshape the international order to its benefit, if need be by force.
China sees itself by dint of size and history as the center of a new Asian order and a counterweight to American hegemony. Its silken diplomacy is winning converts around the world, securing access to oil wells and bauxite mines to feed China's booming, but inefficient, economy. America is struggling to respond, its policy tied in knots advocating democracy and human rights, distasteful to many regimes drawn to China, while fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Certainly, Beijing has packed up its traditional disdain for lowly Southeast Asian states instead treating them and their association as equals. Diplomats, freed from Maoist diktats and obligations to help communist revolutionaries, coaxed Asean into discarding its suspicions and writing an invitation requesting a partnership with Beijing in 1991.
China joined the Asean Regional Forum, which discusses security issues, in 1994, becoming a full dialogue partner in July 1996. In 2004 a deal was signed that will open free trade between China and Asean in 2010.
China’s relations with Asean have drawn loud cheers, but more from great expectations stoked by generous pomp and easy chat then the one concrete achievement, a free-trade deal that may jam on the grit of corruption that swings judges and sways officials from their duties in most Asean states and China. For if the bureaucrats and judges can’t be relied upon to apply free trade rules and enforce rulings fairly and reliably in disputes, can trade flow freely?
For all the backslapping and swapping of fancy shirts at annual summits and the ministerial diaries thick with meetings, China has nevertheless shied away from multilaterally tackling thorny issues with Asean, especially security and sovereignty, which would require compromise and agreement on binding procedures for settling disputes, like the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
China is an eager voice in the forum’s discussions, but turns quiet whenever plans are dusted off for developing mechanisms for mitigating and resolving conflicts. Passing up membership of Mekong Regional Commission, which tries to manage the river sensibly through voluntary agreements, China watches from the sidelines while disrupting the river’s flow with huge dams in Yunnan and damaging fisheries by blasting away reefs where fish feed and breed through deals with Laos and Thailand to ease passage for larger cargo vessels.
Nor will Beijing entertain claims by some Asean states to sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands and their surrounding waters in the South China Sea, justifying its entitlement with a map supposedly centuries old. During the 1990s Chinese troops took over an atoll here, an atoll there, occasionally trading shots with Vietnamese or Philippine sailors. In 2002 an agreement was reached to temporarily set aside these fiery tussles for another day, with nobody rushing to stick pins in calendars.
Asean, eager for better access to the Chinese market, had little choice. China holds all the cards. Each year its military becomes more powerful. By 2009 more Asean exports will be loaded onto ships and trucks bound for China than for America. Magnanimity from Beijing would embellish its image worldwide and give some Asean states fewer reasons to remain chummy with America, perhaps bringing a security pact, similar to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization formed with Russia and Central Asian states, into prospect.
Meanwhile behind the fanfare of China’s liberal dabble with multilateralism, centuries of tried and tested realism are at work, building substantial bilateral relations with Burma. Beijing ditched the Communist Party of Burma two decades ago to make up with Rangoon, cementing the relationship with arms worth a few billion dollars, plus civil aid and soft loans totalling $930 million between 1989 and 2005.
In Yunnan construction crews are grading land and pouring concrete for roads and laying sleepers and rails for trains from Kunming into Burma that will open before the end of the decade, making transport faster, cheaper and more punctual. Combine that with an expected agreement on sharing costs between Beijing and Rangoon to improve infrastructure in Burma and a deal on transit fees for Chinese trade via Burma’s coastal ports to the world and Chinese trade and investment seems set to balloon.
Bilateral trade has grown significantly in recent years, helped by a few trade deals, now running over $1 billion annually, plus up to another $1 billion of illicit drugs, gems and timber. Chinese investors are also preparing to stump up big sums for hydropower dams, a free trade port in Rangoon, and a pipeline from Sittwe, where gas and oil from the Burmese seabed are brought onshore, to Kunming.
Likewise ties with Laos have grown substantially since 1990, when its suzerain Vietnam repaired relations with China. Among the world’s poorest countries, with fewer people than there are soldiers and armed policemen in China, Laos is still important enough to warrant President Jiang Zemin visiting in 2000, followed four years later by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. When did America’s president and secretary of state last visit Haiti or El Salvador?
Beijing has provided aid worth $1.17 billion between 1989 and 2005, focusing on roads, often built by Chinese labour, trophy projects like the Lao National Culture Hall, helping out with developing e-government, and upgrading telephone lines and improving internet speed. Laotian officials, used to attending training courses in Hanoi, now find themselves attending, all expenses paid, civil service colleges in China.
Better roads are also being forged from Yunnan into Laos to support burgeoning trade. China is the largest non-Asean partner, and the considerable investments in hydropower, mining and plantations that Chinese investors are beginning to make.
A pattern repeated in Cambodia, where tight relations between the Cambodian People’s Party and the party hacks in Beijing, since they abandoned the Khmer Rouge in the early 1990s, have encouraged Chinese investors, many making their first foray overseas, to pour money in. China is the third largest foreign investor between 1994 and 2006, but the largest annually since 2004. Chinese firms are now building Cambodia’s biggest hydropower plant and sniffing around promising offshore gas fields.
Such warm ties did not come cheap. Chinese diplomats expended a great deal of capital, and no doubt lost face along the way, to switch support from the king to his enemies the Khmer Rouge, and on to their nemesis, the Vietnamese-backed People’s Party. Almost every top Chinese political and party figure visits Phnom Penh, including Jiang in 2000 and Wen in 2006. They have provided sanctuary and doctors for the king, and aid totalling US$2 billion over the last three decades for the Khmer Rouge and then the People’s Party.
Indeed no other country receives as much aid from China as Cambodia. Chinese contractors build key roads and bridges, such as those across the Mekong at Steung Treng, others are preparing to build offices for Cambodia’s cabinet, and Chinese soldiers train Cambodian troops and sailors to use arms, ships and equipment made in China.
Such generosity and indulgence for three neighbourhood beggars is not simple benevolence, though Beijing may protest otherwise. While Japan pumps in more aid and America may still be the land of dreams for ordinary people, it is only China that reaches out comprehensively with offerings of political solidarity, unconditional aid, encouragement for investment and trade, cut-price weapons and training for officials. It bespeaks Beijing’s enduring readiness to pursue broad security bilaterally along its southeastern border.
Bilateralism will remain Beijing’s preferred avenue for achieving security until its military can defeat America or Japan and sustain expeditions far from home. While China is rising, Beijing must choose carefully when to seek security in multilateral settings, which may dilute its power and curtail options, to avoid compromising its interests and image.
In Southeast Asia, this means using multilateralism to cultivate a cordial regional environment while bilaterally building friendships to secure its southeastern border, strengthen its hand in the South China Sea, counter American influence, and open trade routes and coastal ports to breathe life into central China’s economy.
Together Burma, Laos and Cambodia form an arc of security, influence and trade for China overlooking key routes and energy fields in the Andaman and South China Seas. They in turn find comfort with Beijing because, to varying degrees, concerns are shared about America’s willingness to topple regimes and the advance of democracy around the world.
China’s embrace of these three states may not be without benefit for Southeast Asia. Aid, investment and trade from China brought by strong political ties is boosting economies and strengthening regimes in the three states. While that will, with good cause, make human rights and democracy advocates groan, it seems likely to improve stability, avoiding the regional nightmare that will follow should they follow Somalia or Afghanistan into failure.
Similarly, as a consequence of trading through the ports of Burma and Cambodia, China’s stability may also strengthen if investment rises and more jobs appear in Yunnan, Sichuan, and other provinces of central China hit by deepening despondency and frequent riots in recent years. That too will be good for the security of East Asia.
Distasteful as some might find it in the short term, China’s playing of both bilateral and multilateral hands in Southeast Asia may turn out to be a hedge in everybody’s long-term interest.