In recent years, China saw an unprecedented intimacy with South East Asia. Understanding the strategic value of the region, Beijing flexed its propaganda muscle for a stable alliance. Despite much expense, China struggled to win over the locals’ hearts and minds, mostly due to cultural and historical insensitivity. Prime example: Beijing’s fumbling attempt to play up the ‘Chineseness’ of Chinese diaspora to evoke camaraderie.

National identities threaten colonial powers. Thus, as a crown colony, races were segregated in the British Malay, not only in terms of political influence and economic prowess but also in a geographical and cultural sense. For Singapore, it was not until its independence that Lee Kuan Yew had got into the labor of constructing a national identity. By upholding a strong official presence in balancing ethnic ratio whilst suppressing ethnic characteristics, a set of ‘pan-Asian’ values and a sense of belonging gradually embedded itself into the Singaporean social fabric. In other words, though the majority of the city-state were ethnic chinese, its cultural and national identity is nevertheless strictly, and by design, distinct from that of China. Beijing, however, is too important for such nuance and sees no difference among different dimensions of ‘Chineseness’.

By appealing to the Singaporeans with cultural and ethnic similitude, Chinese diplomats often (unknowingly) crossed a red-line fundamental to the former’s nation-building. This ‘intrusive’ approach was used in Malaysia as well, only with even less subtlety as Chinese diplomats in Malaysia publicly opined on the ethnically-volatile Malaysian politics, stating that China will always be the backing force of Malaysian Chinese (alarmingly, not unlike how Putin stated that Russia will protect the rights of Russians abroad as his Casus belli to seize Crimea). Chinese diplomats seem unable to grasp the fact that ambiguity is a lubricant for racial politics and as a consequence of Beijing’s meddling, most of the Malaysian Chinese now found themselves between a rock and hard place: their language and culture were long seen by some as ‘un-Malaysian’ and now such accusations were exacerbated precisely due to China’s ‘support’.

In Thailand and Indonesia, the ‘Chinese-question’ bears yet another layer of historical implication. Owing to regional instability during the cold war, the Chinese Communist Party was extensively involved in the local underground communists’ activities in both countries. Since their post-colonial juntas chose to align with the United States, martial laws were introduced to crush the communists’ insurgencies. Included in those laws, was an iron grip over Chinese schools and organizations, then seen by the authority as a hotbed of communism and Sinocentric nationalism. Coupled with prevalent sinophobic sentiments, the sociable and affluent Chinese diaspora had no choice but to localize their surnames by mimicking those of high officials and local upper-class as a sign of loyalty. That was not a step merely to retain their social status, but also part of the attempt to safeguard their personal security in Indonesia where it was implemented forcibly due to sporadic Anti-Chinese movements.

Chinese diplomats seem unable to grasp the fact that ambiguity is a lubricant for racial politics.

Even bilateral relations with former Communist comrades was not plain sailing.  Before the Sino-Soviet Split in the 1960s, China and Vietnam were already strange bedfellows and their divorce escalated into armed conflicted due to border friction. Shortly after the ceasefire in Vietnam War and Reunification of Vietnam, China intervened in the regional conflicts of Indochina and sent troops across its border to Vietnam in 1979. Although Chinese troops halted at a hundred kilometers away from Hanoi, border clashes continued for more than a decade with both sides claiming victory. The Sino-Vietnam war remains a thorny memory to many Vietnamese and seeded deep-rooted Sinophobia among them. In Hanoi’s History Military Museums, captured Chinese artilleries and vehicles were proudly displayed next to its American counterparts, and any attempts to revitalize Chinese Characters were swiftly suppressed. Therefore, if China wants to improve its relationship with Vietnam, it would be imprudent for Beijing to set up ‘Confucius Institutes’ in their soil, as it would be perceived as a transgression that is both disrespectful to its history and opening already healing wounds.

From a macro perspective, China should respect ASEAN’s role and efforts to maintain regional peace and order, and refrain from direct intervention, as a peace-keeper nor as an intruder. Well aware of their internal divergence in languages, religions, and cultures, ASEAN decided to maintain the principle of non-interference while taking in members that were diametrical opposites to its member states. This ‘ASEAN way’ prevented the region from converging into a single political entity with a collective ideology and security strategies, not even a joint-statement supporting any side. In other words, by nature, the ASEAN is and will remain neutral in the South China Sea issue and it would be unwise for China to sow discord within ASEAN to gain an upper hand in the South China Sea. Decades ahead of China, South Korea and Japan had long been cultivating their own interest in the region. It would take Beijing an arm and a leg to secure what has already been secured.

To get on the good side of ASEAN, China must recognize that Southeast Asia is no longer where China met India, but a distinct and multi-faceted entity after more than fifty years of decolonization. And to do so, Beijing needs a crash course in multiculturalism.

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