China’s diplomatic forays into Southeast Asia are as periodic and predictable as domestic cycles of tightening up and loosening down: the status quo holds for a while, then disruptive change causes contradictions and misunderstandings to arise. Odes to eternal friendship are sung, increased trade is touted and a fresh effort is made to patch things up again. Rinse and repeat.
The latest charm offensive by a Chinese premier in Southeast Asia offers something old and something new. Li Keqiang was recently dispatched to Southeast Asia to disentangle entanglements and further tie ties. Such a tour reminds the region that there is an alternative to Uncle Sam and her name is China. But unlike the early southern forays, starting with Premier Zhou Enlai’s epic visit to the Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1955, the message now is not “communism is your friend” but rather “the business of diplomacy is business.”
In April 1955, Zhou was the man of the hour, having narrowly escaped an assassination attempt to preach peace and neutrality in the name of a non-aligned movement at Bandung. In the first half of the 1960s, titular president Liu Shaoqi tried to show that “Good Communists” could make good neighbors. Liu and “first lady” Wang Guangmei went to Hanoi where they were Ho Chi Minh’s guests of honor in a fraternal socialist state. They were also famously feted by Indonesia’s Sukarno in capitalist Jakarta, though the glamor of the visit came back to haunt them in the Cultural Revolution. During the high tide of Red Guards waving the red flag, Liu and his wife were mocked cruelly and imprisoned. Across Southeast Asia, AK47-toting guerillas went on the offensive, seeking to topple standing governments, armed and funded by Beijing. Embassies were shuttered and state-to-state foreign policy collapsed.
By the time Deng Xiaoping repudiated the chaotic policies of Mao and consolidated power in 1979, state-to-state relations had resumed their place in the sun. Affairs of state eclipsed ideology-driven party-to-party relations, and it has been that way ever since.
Deng Xiaoping’s right-hand man, Premier Zhao Ziyang, travelled to Southeast Asia in 1979 and again in 1981 to reassure Thailand and other anti-communist neighbors that China would adhere to a strict non-interference policy, which in practical terms meant dialing down support for regional Communist parties and dialing up state recognition. Zhao walked a diplomatic tightrope since clandestine support for guerilla groups was not entirely discontinued, but his assurances proved meaningful in the long run. Direct support for underground parties in peninsular Southeast Asia dropped and the Communist Party of Thailand crumbled due to factional discord. The PRC’s once-substantial support for Vietnam also withered due to Sino-Soviet tensions and then was sundered completely with the border war of 1979 in which Deng saw it fit to “punish” Vietnam for toppling China’s client state in Phnom Penh led by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. The Mao-inspired Communist Party of the Philippines grudgingly took a back seat to state-to-state relations in the 1980s, but has never disbanded and is now loosely allied with President Rodrigo Duterte in support of his hardcore law-and-order drive and pro-Beijing policy.
Chinese Premier Li Peng’s 1990 stiff visit to Singapore and a subsequent 1991 visit to Thailand were not the stuff diplomatic dreams are made of; more holding action than charm offensive. Defensive in the wake of the bloody Tiananmen crackdown of 1989, China dispensed with diplomatic pomp and instead let money do the talking. Beijing strengthened business links with opportunistic tycoons, mostly of Chinese descent, in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia, whose cold indifference to human rights could be productively construed as non-interference. Within a year of the unpopular premier’s south-of-border tour, China was invited to be a “consultative partner” of ASEAN and, in what may be considered a rare win for Li Peng’s awkward diplomacy, relations were normalized with former arch-enemy Vietnam in late 1991.
The no-nonsense Premier Zhu Rongji rose to the diplomatic helm in the years that followed, earning respect for his shrewd economic guidance during the 1997 financial crisis, fearless bureaucratic reform, and stern anti-corruption drives. The perception that China was not only not a foe, but even a potential friend, took root as Beijing lent financial support to countries buffeted by the crisis, especially Thailand, and boosted two-way trade to tide things over. Zhu went on to smooth China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, raise the possibility of a China-ASEAN free trade zone and call for a softer approach to Taiwan.
The next round of charming Southeast Asia fell to Wen Jiabao, who was burdened by growing maritime tensions and blundered significantly by attempting to use checkbook diplomacy to blunt tensions at a time when China was aggressively asserting dominion in the South China Sea. The half-billion-dollar deal sweetener known as the Maritime Cooperation Fund offered at Bali in 2011 had no takers and a rise in tensions saw security rather than trade issues dominate the discourse. Several high-profile crimes and hostage cases victimizing Chinese people also muddied the waters, while poorly regulated, record-breaking waves of Chinese investment and group tourist activity began to create tensions at the oft-vaunted level of people-to-people exchange.
At its best, the current Belt and Road Initiative invokes the cosmopolitan reach of the historic Silk Road, but it’s also being recklessly applied to big-time investment in almost anything, anywhere. A case in point is the Dara Sakor Seashore Resort, a white elephant casino project in Cambodia, which according to a Reuters report signed away 45,000 hectares of a national park to an opaque team of Chinese investors supported by a Belt and Road bond. The rain forest was cut down and a thousand villagers were dislocated, for what? Blackjack tables and roulette wheels? For a “VIP only” experience of “extravagant feasting and revelry?”
Non-interference in the domestic affairs of diplomatic partners has been a pillar of China’s policy, dating back to Bandung days when China had little more to offer than ideology and an outstretched hand of friendship, but it rings hollow now that China is an economic giant. Big money from a big country can’t help but influence, disrupt and transform the small and medium sized countries it seeks to profit in. China’s high-speed rail plan in Malaysia fell apart when disgraced premier Najib Razak lost the election to former premier Mahathir, known for his nationalistic bent. Big ticket infrastructure plans, whether it be a canal across the Kra Isthmus in Thailand or a train line in Laos, will gut the natural environment, drive away farmers and upset a precious traditional way of life.
As such, Li Keqiang, the latest in a long string of premiers sent to woo Southeast Asia, has his work cut out for him. Shifts in diplomatic outlook on the part of both the U.S. and China are changing the rules as tensions arise and polarize the region.
By the same token, China, giddy, groping and greedy from its rapid rise and mind-boggling wealth, must be on guard against over-reach. Deng Xiaoping’s savvy policy of keeping a low profile is yielding to an increasingly assertive policy, including imprudent unilateral actions and an uptick of tone-deaf militant pronouncements from Beijing.
Southeast Asia is not China’s backyard, but rather the center of its own existence, a grouping of proud, independent states with distinct and diverse cultural traditions. All sides need and want to get along, all sides benefit from stability and fair trade. Southeast Asian security fears and China’s energy and shipping insecurities can be alleviated with mutual engagement and respect. However, as much as Li might like to keep it light and focus on amity and trade, as did his predecessors, flashpoints touching on territorial sovereignty and thorny security questions beg attention. What’s more, roughshod environmental degradation and heart-wrenching social disruption due to big-time economic integration cannot be wished away with silk-shirted banquets, maotai toasts, win-win pronouncements, and gala photo-ops.
While the U.S. enjoyed untrammeled economic access to Southeast Asia during the Cold War, and almost uncontested military dominance since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it now faces a credible rival in China, not just in terms of trade and manufacture but in emerging templates for diplomacy and military security as well. It would be foolish for the U.S. to re-invoke Cold War style swagger – “if you are not with us you are against us” — because China is in the region to stay. Taking the long view, the three-decade containment of China was a historic anomaly. China and Southeast Asia have been actively engaging and occasionally enraging one another for untold centuries.