Much that is discussed about China’s foreign policy and security posture these days revolves around military matters — warships and fighter planes bought from Russia, 1,300 missiles aimed at Taiwan, and the latest maneuvers of the People’s Liberation Army.
Another side to China’s emerging might, however, is what some pundits call “soft power” or “smiling diplomacy” or the “charm offensive.” Most of that involves application of China’s expanding economy to trade, aid and investment to achieve political ends.
In a wider context, China’s soft power seems integral to what may be a campaign to revive the Middle Kingdom, the China of yesteryear that dominated Asia. Chinese armies won’t march across international borders but rather Beijing seeks to acquire such political, economic and diplomatic clout that major decisions in every Asian capital will require Chinese approval.
A scholar who specializes in China, Joshua Kurlantzick, has written: “China may want to shift influence away from the United States to create its own sphere of influence, a kind of Chinese Monroe Doctrine for Southeast Asia [where] countries would subordinate their interests to China’s, and would think twice about supporting the United States.” (President James Monroe proclaimed in 1823 that outside powers would not be permitted to intervene in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere.)
In a fresh assessment, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) in Washington, says China has been mostly, but not completely, successful in Southeast Asia: “Beijing has largely allayed Southeast Asian concerns that China poses a military or economic threat.” In contrast, the United States is perceived as having “waning or limited attention” to Southeast Asia.
China’s ability to influence Southeast Asians, the CRS report contends, “largely stems from its role as a major source of foreign aid, trade, and investment.” In addition, overseas Chinese communities in almost every Southeast Asian nation “have long played important parts in the economies, societies and cultures of Southeast Asian states.”
One set of figures is illuminating. China’s imports of Southeast Asian goods from 1997 to 2006 soared 674 percent, to $89.5 billion. In the same period, U.S. imports rose 57 percent, to $111 billion. When the 2007 figures are in, China will more likely have bought more from Southeast Asia than the United States.
The Chinese have concentrated their economic assistance on Burma and Laos on their southern border, and on Cambodia, reached through Laos. They are also the poorest countries in the region. A U.S.-shunned authoritarian junta rules Burma, or Myanmar.
China has provided the largest amount of aid to Burma and helped build roads, railroads, airfields and ports. The Chinese have also provided up to $2 billion worth of weapons to the junta, which has undoubtedly helped the oppressive regime there to stay in power.
Beijing has lent Vietnam large sums for railways, hydropower projects and shipbuilding yards. Compared with its influence in Burma, Laos and Cambodia, however, the CRS report says, “China’s influence in Vietnam is relatively limited.”
Although China supported North Vietnam against South Vietnam and the United States in the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese have historically feared China. Large parts of Vietnam were occupied by China for about a thousand years to 939 and China invaded Vietnam briefly in 1979. Anti-Chinese demonstrations erupted in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) last month to protest Chinese military exercises aimed at islands near Vietnam.
China’s influence in the island nations of Indonesia and the Philippines has been in competition with that of the United States. After the terrorist assaults of September 11, 2001, the United States has sought to cultivate good relations with Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
Even so, the CRS reports, President Hu Jintao of China and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia in 2005 “signed a declaration proclaiming a ‘strategic partnership’ that was accompanied by a promise of preferential loans work $300 million.”
Similarly, China has sought influence in the Philippines even though the islands were once an American colony and now have a security treaty with the United States. Premier Wen Jiabao of China and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines signed 20 economic agreements in January 2007 that included a contract for a Chinese company to build and renovate railroads.
While the United States has been behind the curve, the CRS report cautions that “even some of the main beneficiaries of China’s largess in Southeast Asia remain wary of the PRC [People’s Republic of China, the formal name of China] or seek to dampen its growing influence.”
Richard Halloran is a free-lance writer and former New York Times correspondent based in Honolulu.