The world’s attention has been much focused on China’s smooth political transition, especially at the last National People’s Party Congress in March. President Hu Jintao’s power consolidation, the overheating (or not) of the Chinese economy, a possible revaluation of the renminbi, the current fight over textile quotas, an impressive 32 gold medal haul at the Athens Olympics last summer and the spectacular Shanghai Grand Prix earlier this year have all made headlines.
In fact, China’s international prestige has been increasing significantly, assisted by hosting its first-ever Formula One in Shanghai, as well as the Shanghai Tennis Open. There will definitely be a further rise in Chinese nationalism and “prestige-harnessing” in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In the economic arena, Beijing’s Finance Minister and Central Bank Governor were both invited for the first time to a G-7 dinner meeting in Washington on October 1, 2004. This was due recognition of China’s growing economic clout in trade, investments and finance, while becoming the world’s fourth economic power-house.
But little has been said about Beijing’s “new” diplomacy, especially with regard to its Asian neighbours. Chinese diplomacy has evolved in a sophisticated and active way. China seeks “big power” status regionally, internationally, strategically and diplomatically. Now Beijing’s Asian neighbours are accommodating their Chinese bed mate.
This aspect of Beijing’s increasing prestige, clout and rising nationalism is a crucial factor in China’s current relations with its Asian neighbours, who seem to be standing in awe of a “rising China” in their midst. They undoubtedly hope to extract the greatest benefits possible from such an emerging phenomenon, just as Beijing seeks to reduce any perception of threat that might accompany its rise.
So the present “bed-fellow” relationship between China and its smaller neighbours is premised on a mutually beneficial relationship, which both sides seek to promote and implement. Being “in bed with the panda” has become a pragmatic reality for the region. Chinese “soft power” has also been a key to Beijing’s improved relations internationally and with its neighbours. Of particular importance is the theory in China of a “peaceful rising”, or what is otherwise known as a “peaceful development”, so placating concerns by Beijing’s smaller Asian neighbours, who may fear such a “rising” in their midst.
Mutual perception is all-important in Sino-ASEAN relations. China used to pose two sorts of threats to South-East Asia. From an historical perspective there was the communist threat from Beijing in the 1960s and 1970s, as experienced by Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines and Burma (now Myanmar).
On the other hand, Beijing was also perceived as a direct threat in Vietnam in 1979, when Chinese troops crossed the Sino-Vietnamese border to teach Vietnam a lesson over its invasion and occupation of neighbouring Cambodia.
Today, all ASEAN countries embrace unequivocally and acknowledge publicly the “one-China” policy. This is to the detriment of Taiwan, which has not made much headway in wooing the ASEAN countries.
In addition to this historical dimension, South-East Asian countries have lately witnessed another major perception change, from what was termed a “China threat” (in economic, trade, investment, social and employment terms) just two to three years ago, to one of a “benign” China with opportunities (for ASEAN). Three factors have come into play:
- Beijing’s pragmatic policy of political stabilisation (instead of ideological destabilisation) has been assuring to ASEAN countries;
- China is now perceived as an opportunity for ASEAN, thanks to Beijing’s political decision to hold up (or not competitively devalue) the renminbi during the 1997-98 Asian Crisis and then to the latest “bonus” of surplus trade, “accorded” to ASEAN countries by Beijing; and
- This shifted - or reduced threat - perception is also due to Beijing’s new, active and emerging “sophisticated diplomacy”, illustrated by the smooth transitions from Deng Xiaoping to the Jiang Zemin-Zhu Rongji team, and then to the present Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao team. Four areas of Beijing’s present foreign policy “sophistication” would include a less pompous, but more pragmatic foreign policy; its growing economic diplomacy; its thrust towards international integration and finally, a struggle for multi-polarity in the world.
All these areas assure the ASEAN countries of a more “benign China” in its outlook and national strategy, and have helped to reduce the previous “China threat”. China is increasingly being perceived not only as a “benign power”, but also as a responsible actor on the world stage.
Key to this perception shift in ASEAN has been China’s strategic policy of “down-playing ideology, and moving towards pragmatism”, which ASEAN countries have detected in both China’s domestic policies and external relations.