Historical Legacy Sours China-ASEAN Dialogue
By Gang Lin
Coinciding with Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji's Southeast Asian tour, 15 distinguished China/Southeast Asia watchers and policy analysts offered a timely and wide-ranging examination of China's strategic intentions and economic leverage in Southeast Asia, and explored potential tensions in Sino-Southeast Asian relations. These speakers were joined at the all-day conference by approximately 100 U.S. government officials, congressional staffers, think tank analysts, university professors, businessmen, journalists and foreign diplomats.
This program, jointly hosted by the Asia Program and Georgetown University, brought scholars and policy analysts of China and Southeast Asia, two groups that seldom interact, into a common dialogue. Conference participants examined Sino-Southeast Asian relations from geopolitical, economic, environmental and historical perspectives.
The first panel discussed China's military and diplomatic strategies toward Southeast Asia. Panelists agreed that China's claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea reflect both historical roots and Beijing's current maritime ambitions. These claims help explain Beijing's "sour diplomacy" toward the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as well as ASEAN's hedging strategy toward China. These resulting tensions can be neutralized only by regional economic integration and Beijing's willingness to engage in multilateral dialogues with the nations of ASEAN. The United States has a part to play as well. According to one of the panelists, the U.S. must redefine its role in Southeast Asia in order to maintain regional stability and sea lane safety.
The second panel assessed China's economic competitive advantage compared with that of Southeast Asian nations. China's advantage, according to the panelists, lies in its market potential, cheap labor, low political risk and ongoing state enterprise reform. However, panelists were skeptical whether China will become a real free market economy after its entrance into the World Trade Organization. China will lose its comparative advantage if it cannot expedite economic and financial reform and improve its distribution system in the near term. As one panelist pointed out, China's internet industry already lags behind its counterparts in several Southeast Asian nations.
The third panel explored potential tensions in Sino-Southeast Asian relations associated with three issues: 1) food security concerns of Cambodia and southern Vietnam due to China's control of the headwaters of major river systems, 2) ethnic conflicts between overseas Chinese and native people in Southeast Asia due to the disparity of economic and political power enhanced by the trends of marketization and democratization, and 3) possible reaction to Burma's close ties with China and to Beijing's strategy of using Burma to outflank India.
The conference was capped by remarks by two former U.S. ambassadors to China, J. Stapleton Roy and James Lilley. Ambassador Roy stressed China's historical perspective of its claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea, and the lack of state-to-state relations between China and ASEAN throughout the many years of Southeast Asia's colonial experience. According to Roy, different historical perspectives between China and ASEAN have made it difficult for these countries to find a common principle in dealing with their territorial disputes.
Lilley devoted his closing remarks to looking at the future of Chinese-Southeast Asian relations. China's strategic intentions toward the South China Sea and its manipulation of overseas Chinese, according to Lilley, have created political tensions in this region, which can only be diluted by Beijing's economic modernization and a growing economic integration of this region.