Date
26 February 2020
A Chinese flag flutters on a boat in Beijing in this picture taken on Oct. 29 last year. Some Asian countries which used to be close to Washington are now seeking to mend fences with Beijing, displaying pragmatism. Photo: AFP
A Chinese flag flutters on a boat in Beijing in this picture taken on Oct. 29 last year. Some Asian countries which used to be close to Washington are now seeking to mend fences with Beijing, displaying pragmatism. Photo: AFP

How China’s rise is changing diplomacy dynamics in Asia

Recently, I traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Learning that I had come from Hong Kong, the first thing a cab driver there asked me was: is the unrest now under control?

Some other ethnic Chinese cab drivers whom I encountered during the trip simply sighed, saying they found it difficult to understand why Hong Kong was inflicting an “Armageddon” on itself.

To some extent, their questions and doubts, if seen in the historical context of their countries, reflect the view among people in the region that one has to learn to live with Beijing.

As a neighboring great power, China is definitely not something that Southeast Asian countries would want to mess with from a geopolitical perspective.

During the Cold War era, the situation in Asia was pretty clear-cut: while countries such as China, Vietnam and Cambodia were up against the United States under the leadership of the Soviet Union, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan and South Korea were rallying closely behind Washington against the communist bloc.

However, China’s economic reforms starting from 1979 and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in drastic changes in diplomatic affairs across Asia: as China’s economy took off, so did its national strength and international influence.

Amid the waking of this “sleeping lion”, many Asian countries were at a loss as to how to respond to the new phenomenon.

The matter was further compounded by the fact that the US appeared more focused on Europe than Asia, leaving room for Beijing to steadily expand its muscle.  

It wasn’t until the Barack Obama era that the US began to hastily shift its strategic focus from Europe and refocus on Asia.

But before the US is able to re-establish its sphere of influence in the region, Asian countries, many of which have long-standing maritime territorial disputes with Beijing, will have to learn to get along with the increasingly powerful China.

As the old Chinese saying goes, “distant water cannot put out the nearby fire”. From the standpoint of Southeast Asian countries, the US is “distant water” in the face of China’s rise to global prominence.

Given the situation, most Asian countries — including those which used to lean toward the US — have no choice but to work toward good relations with China, under the principle of peaceful co-existence.

For example, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been adopting a pro-Beijing diplomatic policy line ever since he came to power in 2016, signaling that he wants peaceful resolution of the territorial disputes between his country and China in the South China Sea.

Duterte also visited China multiple times in a bid to build closer economic cooperation between the two sides.

Among other leaders in the region, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has said that he doesn’t want an adversarial relationship with Beijing despite the South China Sea dispute and the Uyghur Muslim issue in Xinjiang.

Elsewhere, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said recently that Hong Kong and Xinjiang issues are purely the domestic affairs of China, sending a message that Seoul badly wants to befriend Beijing in order to gain more leverage over North Korea and Japan.

As we can see, some Asian countries which used to be close to Washington are now jumping on the bandwagon of mending fences with Beijing for reasons of “realpolitik”.

All this does get me thinking: why would Hong Kong, a part of China and one of its special administrative regions, want to follow an opposing path against Beijing?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 4

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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JC/RC

HKEJ contributor