WHAT CHINA’S RISE MEANS FOR SOUTH-EAST ASIA AND OVERSEAS CHINESE?

WHAT CHINA’S RISE MEANS FOR SOUTH-EAST ASIA AND OVERSEAS CHINESE?

BY BILAHARI KAUSIKAN,  in: <http://www.todayonline.com/authors/bilahari-kausikan&gt;
PUBLISHED: 11:33 AM, APRIL 9, 2015; UPDATED: 11:34 AM, APRIL 9, 2015
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To be a true superpower like the United States, countries need to be both
continental and maritime powers, and this is what China is trying to do now,
said prominent historian Wang Gungwu in a new book launched on Monday.
Speaking as guest of honour at the book launch, Ambassador-at-Large at the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs Bilahari Kausikan said Professor Wang’s
distinction between a maritime power and a continental power was “extremely
suggestive and powerful”. Mr Kausikan also spoke about the implications of
China’s rise for countries with Chinese populations and how Beijing finds it
difficult to accept Singapore as a multiracial meritocracy. Below is an
excerpt of Mr Kausikan’s speech, which he gave in his personal capacity:
The ideas Professor Wang expounds in this book cut to the core of some of
the most important issues of our time. China’s re-emergence as a major power
has changed everything. Countries across East Asia, and indeed throughout
the world, are struggling to understand what it means for their own national
interests and to position themselves accordingly.
How we position ourselves vis-a-vis the United States and China, and
position ourselves across a variety of policy domains and not just foreign
policy, is not only the central strategic issue for Singapore, but also a
question that will preoccupy all of East Asia for many decades to come. And
how middle powers like Japan, Australia or South Korea, as well as our
immediate neighbours and other Association of South-east Asian Nations
(ASEAN) members, respond to US-China adjustments will also have a
significant impact on us. China itself sometimes seems unsure about what it
wants; Chinese leaders have made contradictory statements and Chinese
practice has not been consistent.
CHINA’S RISE AS A NAVAL POWER

I found Professor Wang’s distinction between a maritime power and a
continental power extremely suggestive and powerful.
The US is both a continental power and a major – in fact, the major – naval
power. China, too, seems to be trying to be both. This is, perhaps, the
underlying purpose of the One Belt, One Road policy, which encompasses both
a revival of the overland Silk Road through Central Asia as well as a new
“maritime silk road”.
But Professor Wang seems sceptical that China will succeed in becoming a
major naval power, although he has drawn attention to the significance of
China’s merchant marine.
One ventures to disagree with Professor Wang with only the greatest of
trepidation, but on this point, I am not sure. I think, in the long run,
China is more likely than not to fail on land in Central Asia, because it is
building on the very treacherous sands of intrinsically unstable regimes.
Moreover, Central Asia is intimately connected to a Middle East that will
remain in a more than usual state of turmoil for a very long time to come.
Roads run both ways, and Islamist influence on China’s Uighurs is already a
serious problem that China does not seem to know how to manage. The
traditional ways with which China has dealt with its other minorities do not
seem to be particularly effective in Xinjiang and, indeed, may well be
counterproductive. And while Beijing has so far avoided the most egregious
mistakes of (Soviet leaders Joseph) Stalin and (Nikita) Khrushchev, who
assumed that China would forever be content to be a junior partner to the
Soviet Union, the Sino-Russia relationship is more a tactical convenience
than a natural partnership, and I think a break must eventually come over
Central Asia, which is a vital part of Russia’s “near abroad”.
Having carefully studied the mistakes of the Soviet Union, China is not
going to bankrupt itself in a futile attempt to surpass America’s military
pre-eminence.
But China does not need to match the US everywhere. China is steadily
acquiring sufficient naval capability to give the US pause in waters along
the continental periphery of East Asia and must eventually acquire the
capability to project naval power to protect its energy supply routes to the
Persian Gulf. These routes are currently secured by the (US) Fifth and
Seventh fleets.
It is unnatural for any major power to indefinitely rely on its principal
rival to secure supplies of a vital commodity, and the current situation
cannot hold. This is of particular significance to the countries of
South-east Asia, through which these sea routes pass.
Whatever the ultimate fate of China’s vision for its north and north-west,
it is more likely to achieve its goals to its south, where burgeoning trade
and infrastructure investments are blurring state boundaries and binding
south-western China and mainland South-east Asia into one economic space.
This trend can be attenuated, but not deflected. It creates mutually
beneficial economic opportunities, but will certainly also have political
and strategic consequences.
I believe that in South-east Asia, the sea is likely to follow the land, and
while the US is not declining and will not disappear, a more symmetrical
naval equation must eventually develop in the South China Sea.
Will greater parity between Chinese and American naval capabilities promote
greater convergence of interests and concepts between the US and China?
There are some faint signs that this is not entirely a pipe dream: In 2014,
China justified its deployment of a surveillance vessel to observe the
RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) exercise (near Hawaii) in terms almost identical
to those that the Seventh Fleet uses to justify similar activities in the
South China Sea – activities to which China currently objects.
Or will mainland and archipelagic South-east Asia be pulled in different
directions, rendering ASEAN’s aspiration of fostering a balanced and open
regional architecture hollow? (It is) too early to tell.

IMPLICATIONS FOR OVERSEAS CHINESE

Singapore, like all other members of ASEAN, will certainly be affected one
way or another. But unlike all other South-east Asian states, Singapore has
a majority ethnic Chinese origin population, in a region where the Chinese
have generally not been an entirely welcome minority.
At the same time, Singapore defines itself as a multiracial meritocracy, and
this is what makes Singapore unique in this region. These two facts very
largely drive the dynamics of Singapore’s relations with countries near and
far. In this respect, perhaps the most important parts of this book for
Singapore are Professor Wang’s reflections on what China’s rise implies for
the overseas Chinese.
I will not attempt to summarise what Professor Wang has to say – I read this
section several times, but am not confident that I have yet grasped all the
rich subtleties and nuances of his ideas. So I will make only three
observations of my own and raise three sets of questions.
First, it seems to me that, up to now, the primary influence on the position
of the overseas Chinese of South-east Asia has been the internal politics of
the countries in which they live and of which they are citizens.
This is true, whether the space available to them has broadened, as in
post-Suharto Indonesia, or whether it has narrowed, as it seems to have of
late in Malaysia. Will this hold? How will China’s rise and the redefinition
of Westphalian notions of state and boundary – which the development of more
intimate ties between South-east Asia and China seems to have set in motion
– affect the domestic politics of South-east Asian states?
Second, the influences may not all be one way. In 1998, during the last
months of (former President) Suharto, anti-Chinese riots broke out in
Jakarta. Beijing, breaking with its own practice of many decades towards
overseas Chinese and its general aversion to commenting on the domestic
politics of other countries, felt obliged to administer a mild admonition.
Seventeen years ago, social media was in its infancy. Today, China has some
600 million or more netizens whose opinions, as far as can be discerned,
seem generally highly nationalistic, if not chauvinistic. The days are long
gone when even the most powerful Chinese leader can ignore a public opinion
that the Chinese Communist Party today both uses and fears.
I do not think that if a major anti-Chinese event should again occur in
South-east Asia – which unfortunately cannot be entirely ruled out – Beijing
will necessarily have the luxury of responding in a calibrated manner as in
1998. How then will China respond? What will be the implications for
ASEAN-China relations?
Thirdly, China seems to have great difficulty in accepting Singapore as a
multiracial meritocracy. It seems that this is, to the Chinese, an alien
mode of conceptualising an ethnic Chinese majority country. At any rate,
Chinese officials, sometimes at very senior levels, constantly refer to
Singapore as “a Chinese country” and ask for our “understanding” – by which
I suspect they mean “agreement” – of their policies on that basis. Of
course, we politely, but clearly and firmly, point out that we are not a
Chinese country and that we have our own national interests that we cannot
compromise without grievous and probably irreversible internal and
international damage.
But they persist. Can we change such attitudes? How will China respond if we
continue to, as they probably think, “stubbornly” deny what they consider to
be self-evident?
The Chinese Communist Party still has a United Front Work Department under
its Central Committee, a fact that some revisionist historians who question
that there was ever such a thing in Singapore would do well to ponder.[]

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