A few months ago, a Chinese friend came to see me. He travels frequently and widely in Southeast Asia on business. He is a well informed and acute observer of developments in Southeast Asia and Chinese policies toward the region. I have always benefitted from our conversations. This time I found him worried about the future of ASEAN-China relations. As a businessman, he is perhaps less trapped by diplomatic politesse in his interactions with his counterparts than officials or even members of think-tanks affiliated with official institutions. Despite China’s generosity and goodwill and many positive developments in the ASEAN-China relationship, my friend sensed an undercurrent of reserve toward China. He wanted to be reassured that all was well. I was unable to offer him unqualified reassurance.
China and Southeast Asia are geographically contiguous. We have no choice but to live together. China and ASEAN have decided that their relationship should be a “strategic partnership”, the 10th anniversary of which was celebrated last year. At a Special Foreign Ministers’ meeting to mark the occasion held in Beijing in August 2013, China laid out an ambitious blueprint for the development of its relations with ASEAN. This was given substance by the “2+7 Cooperation Framework” proposed by President Xi Jinping at the October 2013 APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Bali, and by Premier Li Keqiang at the 16th ASEAN-China Summit in Brunei a few days later. ASEAN-China relations today span a broad spectrum of cooperation, reflecting the remarkable changes that China has undergone as well as changes in ASEAN and across the global landscape. Today, ASEAN-China relations are indisputably one of the most crucial relationships in East Asia and an important pillar of regional stability and development. And yet, as my friend observed, there remains an undercurrent of reserve. Significantly, the first of the “twos” in the “2+7 cooperation Framework” is “deepening strategic mutual trust”, which suggests that there may be something of a deficit.
The various maritime disputes in the South China Sea have received much attention, but they are not the central issue. They are symptoms of a far more fundamental issue that colors the entire ASEAN-China agenda: the sheer disparity of size between ASEAN and China and hence the fundamental asymmetry of the relationship between them. The combined population of the ten ASEAN member states is less than half of China’s population; China’s GDP is almost four times larger than the combined GDP of the ten ASEAN member states.
This asymmetry of size and thus of power is an empirical fact that cannot be wished away. Big countries are always going to provoke a degree of anxiety in smaller countries on their periphery. This has nothing to do with the intentions of the big country; it is a reality faced by all big countries in every region throughout history. Big countries have a duty to reassure, a duty that China has only partially fulfilled. Small countries look at the world very differently from big countries. I have come to the sad conclusion that it is almost impossible for big countries to understand how small countries think. Throughout my diplomatic career, I have failed to get Chinese friends to understand; they may intellectually grasp the difference but do not emotionally empathize with small countries. This is probably true of all big countries everywhere. But it may well be particularly difficult for China to empathize because of justifiable pride in its achievements, the growing role of nationalism in the Chinese body politic, and above all, China’s sense of destiny in reclaiming its historical place in East Asia and the world after “a hundred years of humiliation.” Indeed, some Chinese intellectuals and officials seem to harbor, perhaps unconsciously, a hierarchical worldview, and if they believe in the sovereign equality of states, they seem to do so only very lightly.
Recently a young Chinese intellectual of my acquaintance told me that Singapore’s Prime Minister should not have expressed a view on the dispute between China and Japan over the islands the Chinese call Diaoyu and the Japanese call Senkaku, because the “Chinese people” took umbrage at a small country telling a big country what to do. I do not know how my acquaintance knew what 1.4 billion people were thinking, but the Prime Minister was only answering a question about a dispute that could affect the peace and security of the entire region. On another occasion, shortly after he spoke about the South China Sea at an ASEAN Summit, a senior Chinese diplomat told one of my junior colleagues that “silence is golden.” I am not entirely sure what that Chinese diplomat meant, but if he intended to convey that we were not entitled to a view on an important issue, I am afraid he did not advance the cause of Chinese diplomacy in Southeast Asia.
These are not isolated incidents. With increasing frequency, Chinese officials have suggested that as a small country, we should speak only to “explain” China’s position. Nor do I think that Singapore has been singled out. A few years ago a Senior Officials Meeting leader from another ASEAN country told me that when his country was Chair of ASEAN, the Chinese Ambassador in his country forced him to shift an ASEAN delegation out of the hotel that had been allocated to it so that former Premier Wen Jiabao could be accommodated there. The Ambassador insisted on this even though both hotels were of equal quality. I doubt that Premier Wen knew about this or would have approved had he known. But the Chinese Ambassador’s attitude certainly made a deep impression on the SOM leader and the ASEAN delegation that was forced to move.
I could go on recounting such anecdotes, but I think the point is clear enough. Taken together, these incidents betray a mindset that does not serve the future of ASEAN-China relations well. The asymmetry of the relationship can only become more salient as China grows. The various projects under the “2+7 Cooperation Framework”, burgeoning ASEAN-China trade, and Chinese investments in infrastructure are binding Southwestern China and Southeast Asia into one economic and hence one strategic and political space. The benefits are clear and to be welcomed. But at the same time, fundamental concepts of inter-state relations are being modified. The boundary distinguishing China from the contiguous regions to its south has historically been fluid. The forces of globalization, the many planned ASEAN-China projects, and initiatives like the new maritime silk route are re-establishing historical patterns in new ways and adding new layers of complexity to even the most positive of relationships. Unless the mindset that I have briefly described changes, I fear that the future may not as smooth as both China and ASEAN hope.
Modern Southeast Asian history, like modern Chinese history, can be described as a quest for autonomy. In Southeast Asia, the formation of ASEAN was a critical step in that quest. What was hard won will not be tamely relinquished by even the smallest country. Where the balance of autonomy between big and small will eventually be struck is the crucial question that we must confront. Up to now, this question has been largely overshadowed by the euphoria of building an exciting and important new partnership. It exists only as an undercurrent in ASEAN-China relations. But going forward, it cannot be avoided. I believe it will be a critical influence on the evolution of what we mean by a “strategic partnership” between ASEAN and China.
The environment in East Asia generally and Southeast Asia specifically is becoming more complicated as the region rebalances itself in the context of Washington’s and Beijing’s search for a new equilibrium. I had earlier referred to ASEAN-China relations as an important pillar of regional stability and development, but it is by no means the most important one. U.S.-China relations are clearly the most crucial for East Asian stability, with Sino-Japanese relations not far behind and Sino-Indian relations bound to grow in importance. Nor can the interests of countries like South Korea, Australia, and Russia be ignored.
All these relationships are intimately connected and influence one another. It follows that none of ASEAN’s partnerships with major powers, however strategic they may be, can ever be exclusive. East Asian international relations are too entangled for that to be possible. I know Chinese friends do not like the word “balance”, regarding it as a relic of the Cold War and directed against China. But this is not how ASEAN member states themselves see or use the concept. “Balance” is a vital concept for small countries because they can retain their autonomy only in the space created by a balance of major powers. “Balance” in this sense is not directed against any country; rather, it is an omnidirectional state of equilibrium. No ASEAN member state wants to have to choose between any major power. We want the best possible relationship with all the major powers. We seek “balance” in this sense in the context of an open and inclusive regional architecture in our own national interests and not at the behest of any major power or to hurt the interests of any major power.
The leaders of both China and the United States have said that the region is big enough for both and they do not seek to make ASEAN choose between them. Chinese and American leaders seem to understand that any other kind of ASEAN external engagement will inevitably lead to Southeast Asia again becoming a locus of great power rivalry to the detriment of all, big and small. I am not entirely certain, however, that this is understood at more junior levels in both Washington and Beijing.
The young Chinese intellectual of my acquaintance whom I referred to earlier had accused Singapore of making a “strategic mistake” by choosing to be close to the United States, because China is the future. His attitude was somewhat reminiscent of John Foster Dulles. His views contradicted those of his own leaders who had stressed China’s peaceful development and good neighborly relations. I told him that while he believed Singapore was too close to the United States, some American friends believed Singapore was too close to China, so we must be doing something right to navigate equitably between the two great powers. Was his attitude typical of young Chinese? I am not sure. But I have heard similar sentiments from other Chinese acquaintances, albeit not articulated so crudely.
Disputes in the South China Sea carry the greatest risk of polarizing ASEAN and the region. Like it or not, how a big country deals with a small country over questions of sovereignty will be a major influence over how that country is regarded. Questions invoking sovereignty cast the darkest nationalist shadows; no country can easily back down without incurring grievous political costs, and consequently the temptation to secure sovereignty by de facto control through superior force can never be entirely discounted. Again, this has nothing to do with any country’s intentions, and I do not believe China’s intentions in the South China Sea are particularly bellicose, any more than any other claimant states’ intentions are bellicose. Every claimant will sincerely believe that it is only acting defensively in response to the provocations of other claimants. The very notion of provocation is not particularly useful or relevant in this context.
Coming from a country that has important interests but no specific territorial or maritime claims in the South China Sea, I have the luxury of objectivity, and I must say that there are no angels in this affair. Every claimant has taken actions that are considered provocative by other claimants. This must be so almost by definition, because each claimant takes actions it believes are entirely justified as its right in areas it regards as sovereign, but it is that very claim of sovereignty that is disputed by other claimants. It is quite futile to try to apportion praise or blame to specific behaviors. It is equally irrelevant to demand that the disputes be dealt with only by the parties concerned; that is self-evident and indeed a tautology as far as specific territorial or maritime claims are concerned. But it does not mean that other states do not have important interests in how such specific claims are managed. At very least we have an interest in their peaceful resolution and in upholding the integrity of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
It is entirely natural that any country will defend what it considers its sovereign rights. It is also entirely natural that every country will want the best military force it can afford, because the ability to defend oneself is a vital attribute of sovereignty. I thus find nothing unusual about China’s claims in the South China Sea or its military modernization program. What is critical is how claims of sovereignty are pursued. Will such claims be pursued within common frameworks of norms, including procedures to change norms considered obsolete or unjust, or by unilateral actions based on superior force? China has dealt with other boundary disputes, for example with its land border with Vietnam and maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Tonkin, largely within established frameworks and equitably, perhaps even generously. But in the South China Sea, the record is mixed, and China has not behaved consistently. In its recent submission to the UN justifying the deployment of HD-981 to contested waters in the Paracels, China cited international law and UNCLOS. Yet on other occasions China has argued that since its claims predate UNCLOS that regime cannot be the sole basis to determine sovereignty.
Particularly unsettling is the increasing reliance on history. Even setting aside the fact that in international law history has a role in determining claims over territory but not over maritime claims, historical arguments arouse anxieties among claimant and non-claimants alike. China has such a long history that I do not doubt that the ancient Chinese named many features in the South China Sea and beyond. But naming features and claiming sovereignty are entirely different matters. The ancient Chinese had a name for the island of Pedra Branca (Pai Chiao), which the International Court of Justice determined in 2008 belonged to Singapore; they had a name for the Singapore Straits (Loong Ya Men); they even had a name for Temasek (Ta-ma-hsi), as Singapore was then known. What does this prove? Was there a concept of sovereignty as it is currently understood in ancient times? And since many of these features were either aids or hazards to navigation, they must have been recognized by seamen of many countries. Pedra Branca, for instance, is a Portuguese name, but apart from the Chinese name there is also a Malay name for the same island, Pulau Batu Puteh. History is always subject to multiple interpretations, and interpretations are constantly being revised as new facts come to light and interests change. There is therefore a danger that our own historical narratives will lead us in directions that we do not intend to take. In any case, the words of any major power echo far more loudly than may be intended.
In February this year, President Xi Jinping met Lien Chan, the former Taiwanese Premier and Vice President, in what was described as the highest-level exchange since Mao Zedong met Chiang Kai-shek in 1945. In a speech on that occasion, which the People’s Daily published on its front page under the title “The Chinese Dream to Fulfill the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese People Together”, President Xi cast the meeting in the historical context of how Taiwan had been occupied by foreign powers when the Chinese nation had been weak in the past. Much of the speech was specific to Taiwan, and cross-Straits reconciliation is certainly to be welcomed. But by casting reconciliation with Taiwan as an instance of the rectification of an historical injustice done to a weak China, it suggested and left open a broader settling of accounts. Since the 19th century China undoubtedly suffered from the predations of many foreign powers. Does it mean to redress every one of these historical injustices? If not, how will distinctions between different cases be made? Who will make them? The mentality of a victim ill-suits a great country.
So where do we go from here? Geography gives us no choice but to move ASEAN-China relations forward. Some things are already in train, for example discussions on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. In addition to the 2+7 Cooperation Framework, there are various other ASEAN-China projects in the works. These are all necessary and important, but unless we address the core issue of asymmetry squarely and sensitively, I fear they may well have unintended consequences.
I think it was Mencius who observed that in dealing with a small state, a large state ought to use magnanimity, and when dealing with a large state, a small state ought to use wisdom. This is very good advice, although it still leaves open the precise meaning of “magnanimity” and the meaning of “wisdom.” I suspect that large and small states will have somewhat different understandings of these concepts, and different understandings of the meaning of “mutual strategic trust.” As another venerable Chinese tradition puts it: “If language is not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” The “truth” of these and other concepts that will shape the future of ASEAN-China relations will have to be politically and diplomatically defined and constructed between ASEAN and China. Both sides need nothing less than a genuine process of partnership in which there is a duty of care to ensure one partner’s dream does not become the other’s nightmare.