Diplomatic quickstep

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 May, 2010, 12:00am

For China, it seems, the region has suddenly become a more complicated place. The slow but steady mutual courtship of the past 15 years or so is giving way to a distinct new phase. Perhaps it is a natural maturity in relations, or maybe the ardour is simply cooling on all sides amid mounting challenges and complexities.

Whatever the cause, the strategic, economic and political realities underpinning China's rise are being keenly felt. At every turn, adjustments are having to be made as China asserts its new-found clout, from widening military exercises and patrols to the forging of commercial deals in its favour, as well as cultural differences. Mainland analysts look askance at what they perceive as a 'crisis in democracy' in the region. Foreign Ministry officials have expressed concern over political tensions in Thailand and Kyrgyzstan, while a recent commentary in Xinhua's Outlook magazine raises more questions than answers.

In it, political scientist Chen Xiangyang, of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, surveyed a host of destabilising factors just beyond China's borders, urging Beijing to take pre-emptive measures to promote regional security.

For a nation whose domestic and international propaganda script is wedded to the concept of non-interference in other countries' internal affairs, phrases such as 'pre-emptive measures' represent an entirely new tack.

Beijing is now well plugged in among the political elites in many regional capitals - a reflection of its broadening range of interests. Could it be about to start quietly exploiting those connections to serve those interests?

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is among the latest leaders to express concerns that, while China's power and influence are growing, 'its future course remains uncertain'. In a speech at the Australian National University last week, Rudd appealed for a deeper, franker engagement with Beijing. The China specialist and former diplomat termed this 'a new Sinology'. It boils down to being able to stand up to Beijing when necessary without the wider mutual friendship being jeopardised. 'This must go beyond old, cold war concepts of fan-Hua or qin-Hua - that is, of either being anti-China or pro-China,' he said. 'The realities are more complex than this old, binary opposition suggests. We should be able to express to China views based on our values and beliefs without our core friendship with China, or China's towards Australia, being called into question. We need a more sophisticated dialogue; a new way forward for a rising great power.'

Rudd's concepts follow a difficult year in the Sino-Australian relationship. Expanding commercial ties have been complicated by the jailing of Australian mining executive Stern Hu, while Beijing also took unprecedented steps to object to a visit by Uygur activist Rebiya Kadeer and the screening of a pro-Uygur film at a Melbourne film festival. Those complexities are also apparent across Southeast Asia, where governments are showing signs of standing up to China across a range of issues, forcing Beijing's envoys to repeatedly insist it is no threat.

'China's platitudes are wearing thin,' warns Singapore-based regional scholar Ian Storey in the latest issue of China Brief, published by the Jamestown Foundation in the United States. He notes an array of tensions, from troubles over a recently introduced free-trade deal, difficulties with Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, and a military build-up to hedge the ambitions of the People's Liberation Army. 'Although Chinese leaders try to reassure [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] governments that Beijing's intentions are benign, today Southeast Asians seem much less willing to take these reassurances at face value.'

The situation is not lost on a Washington now determined to re-engage the region. While US officials insist they welcome China as a 'responsible stakeholder', their own renewed courtship of old allies and newer friendships, from India to South Korea, is fast warming. China's diplomatic dance floor is getting more crowded.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent