Shortly before US President Barack Obama left for Beijing last month, Singapore Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew visited the US and publicly called on Washington to maintain its military presence in Asia to balance a rising China, enraging many Chinese. 'The size of China makes it impossible for the rest of Asia, including Japan and India, to match it in weight and capacity in about 20 to 30 years,' he said. 'So we need America to strike a balance.'
Two weeks ago, the official People's Daily published an online commentary titled 'China has to break through 'neighbourhood dilemma'.' It acknowledged that not only Singapore but other states in Asia 'keep a vigilant eye on China's rise'.
After many years of diligent diplomatic activity aimed at mending ties, China's relations with all its neighbours are far from satisfactory. Thus, the People's Daily article, by commentator Li Hongmei, acknowledged that China continues to have territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. It pointed out that Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand are military allies of the US. And Vietnam, which like China is governed by a communist party, has conducted military exercises with the US and hosted American warships at its ports. Even North Korea, technically China's ally, 'has been attempting to create chances to normalise its relations with the US', Li noted.
Actually, suspicions of China's intentions stem largely from its claims to wide swathes of water and islands far from the Chinese mainland. Countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have competing claims to many of the islands, some of which are mere rocks.
Beijing has backed up its claims with a growing military presence. Since China defeated Vietnam in a naval clash in 1974, it has gained control over the disputed Paracel Islands. Recently, Beijing sent patrol boats into the South China Sea, which it insists are not naval vessels. However, as Lee said in Washington: 'Later, behind these small patrol craft will be a blue-water navy.'
It is not just China's growing military might that worries its neighbours. Its emergence as an economic giant is also cause for concern. According to The New York Times, in the first nine months of this year, Southeast Asia ran up a collective US$74 billion trade deficit with China.
The global economic slowdown has exacerbated trade tensions. Thailand has devalued its currency to try to be more competitive with China. And India has lodged a dozen anti-dumping cases against China in the World Trade Organisation. Much of the attention has focused on the value of the yuan, which is linked to the US dollar and which many consider to be grossly undervalued.
South Korea, which for many years saw China as an economic opportunity, now views it as a possible threat. Last year, the Korea Institute for Defence Analysis issued a report warning about the implications of a rising China to South Korea's security.
Though Japan's new government is interested in strengthening its links in Asia, the dispute with China over natural resources in the East China Sea remains unresolved. Both sides have agreed in principle to joint development but this has not started. When Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama visited China in October, he urged Beijing to begin talks for a treaty on joint development. But, Premier Wen Jiabao reportedly said public sentiment towards Japan had to be taken into account.
China has attempted to improve its image among its neighbours. In April, it proposed a US$10 billion investment fund for infrastructure in Southeast Asia and a US$15 billion fund for low-interest development loans.
But such gestures do not get to the nub of the issue. Politically and militarily, China's neighbours are unconvinced it will not be a threat. Talk of 'harmony' means little when China also speaks of plans to build aircraft carriers, which the small Southeast Asian nations are in no position to match.
China needs to show, through its actions, that it does not seek regional domination or to replace the US as the next hegemon.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator