There has been so much news coming out about China in recent days that some items of particular concern to Southeast Asia neighbors have been buried.
Naturally, Xi Jinping’s ending of the presidential term limits, and focus on Communist party power and state centralisation, have grabbed the headlines. Meanwhile Donald Trump’s protectionist measures have sent shudders through global financial markets and trade dependent nations, even though, so far, they have largely targeted China.
For a Southeast Asia with maritime border threats from China and large ethnic Chinese populations, at least as big a concern could prove to be the strengthening of Beijing’s United Front Work Department, an agency that is the most direct link between the Communist Party leadership and China’s minority groups – seeking to make sure these groups are loyal to and support the party.
Under the UFWD’s wing will now come not only overseas Chinese affairs but also ethnic and religious matters. These are now clearly regarded as inter-related issues. They suggest that China is returning to a feature of the Kuomintang era of the 1930s, trying to engage the ethnic Chinese more closely with the interests of the PRC.
This is clearly a Han-centric agenda which provides a basis for interference in countries with significant Chinese populations, while domestically cracking down on the culture, language and religions of the non-Han minorities such as those of Xinjiang and Tibet.
This is all contrary to the earlier Communist era, when support was occasionally given to revolutionary movements in Southeast Asia, but was not overtly ethnic in character. Meanwhile China officially pursued a path of non-interference. Overseas Chinese could – as some did, often to their regret – return to China but otherwise could not expect support against anti-ethnic-Chinese policies in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia.
Now, however, China is using its rise to appeal to ethnic pride to support the so-called “motherland” and perhaps in return expect Beijing to pressure national governments on their behalf. A glimpse of this was seen in 2015 when Huang Huikang, the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia, paid a remarkable visit to the center of a Chinese area in Kuala Lumpur during a period when Malay supremacist thugs were threatening violence. Huang pointedly inserted himself into racial tension, saying publicly that the Chinese government is opposed to terrorism, racism and extremism.
Meanwhile ethnic Chinese tycoons from the Philippines and Malaysia have been more than willing to praise Beijing and its leadership.
So far there has been no sign of push-back. Malaysia’s venal rulers have been far too pre-occupied with getting mainland money to pay for uneconomic but showy projects to bother about Malay dignity. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte likewise is more interested in Chinese money than in defending national boundaries and independence. Indonesia’s President Widodo has to walk a fine line between offending ethnic Chinese business on the one hand and fending off Islamists on the other.
Back in the 1930s, it was right for China to look for overseas Chinese support against Japanese invasion. Southeast Asia was mostly under colonial rule and the overseas Chinese retained Chinese nationality. But now they are nationals of independent countries and if these face aggression from anyone, it is China itself in the form of China’s growing hegemony over the South China Sea.
In most of these countries, animosity towards ethnic Chinese domination of so much big business is never far below the surface, especially in Malaysia and Indonesia. That could well be reinforced by reaction against the Belt and Road investments planned by China, and by the preference of mainland companies for dealing with ethnic Chinese. Although China does not allow dual nationality, in practice it (like Hong Kong) treats ethnic Chinese differently. Han assumptions of cultural – and sometimes racial – superiority have been re-invigorated by recent economic and technical success.
It is possible that the inclusion of ethnic and religious affairs along with overseas Chinese in the United Front Work department is just a bureaucratic reshuffle which will have no influence on policy. But, in the age of surging Chinese nationalism, and Xi Jinping’s world view, do not bet on it.
The other item which should have caught neighbors’ eyes – and those of the United States – was Xi’s decision to bring the Coast Guard directly under the People’s Armed Police. This 1.5 million-man force is responsible for guarding the nation’s frontiers. Those borders now include all the land and sea territory within China’s 9-dash line claim over the South China Sea.
It is well armed and since last year reports directly to the Central Military Commission.
Hitherto, the Coast Guard has had a non-military status, its ships painted white, lightly armed and supposed to be mainly to prevent smuggling and illegal fishing. Of course in practice, as the Philippines has learned, it has been used to drive Filipino fishermen away from traditional fishing grounds such as Scarborough (Panatag) shoal. But there is an important symbolic difference between it and the military which has now been removed.
Dangers may be further exacerbated by the fact that while the US and Chinese navies have some intercommunication, and hence ability to avoid unintended escalations, there is no such US contact with the People’s Armed Police. Amid growing confrontations between US destroyers insisting on right of passage in the South China Sea close to islets that China has made into armed islands, that lack of contact could make for trouble.