Thursday, April 9, 2015

What China’s rise means for South-east Asia and overseas Chinese

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.


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.


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.

[This is a worrying analysis, particularly the the third observation - That China sees Singapore as a Chinese country. I believe it is true. Even the PRCs who come here seem to be pre-colonisers. Or have the mindset of pre-colonisers.]

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