China or Japan? Why Southeast Asian states can’t afford to be loyal to only one power

Jiang Xun says Beijing should understand that its less-powerful neighbours, squeezed between two giants, are only doing what’s best for their survival, and dignity

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2016, 1:19pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2016, 7:27pm

For as long as countries have existed, there have always been big and strong ones, and small and weak ones, and it has never been easy for a small country to survive.

In the China of 770BC or so, the declining royal family of the Eastern Zhou dynasty grew too weak to control its vassal states. It ushered in a period of intense power struggles now known as the Spring and Autumn period. To survive, the smaller states relied on their more powerful counterparts for protection, and learned to exploit the rivalries between the major powers to their own benefit. While the major powers battled for domination, the small and weak relied on a different playbook for survival.

In early November, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak visited China for seven days – an unusually long official visit for a head of state – and returned home with trade and other deals worth over 230 billion yuan (HK$260 billion). In an opinion piece in China Daily , he pledged Malaysia’s commitment to a strong bilateral relationship and promised to make the most of President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) “One Belt, One Road” initiative. But, just when the Chinese were still basking in the achievements of the visit, they learned that Najib was heading to Japan, a mere 10 days after concluding his trip to China.

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In Japan, Najib procured for Malaysia two large patrol vessels to enforce maritime security in the South China Sea, agreed with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to reinforce their countries’ strategic partnership, and spoke about the high-speed rail project linking Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. China and Japan are locked in a fierce battle for that high-value contract. In Japan, Najib denied rumours that the contract might go to China, and spoke highly of the safety and reliability of the Japanese Shinkansen system, saying Japan was in a very competitive position in the bidding process. No doubt Najib saw an opportunity to extract a more advantageous deal for his country.

A country with a powerful neighbour must know how to keep a low profile, and be guided by pragmatism

China and Japan are undeniably the two giants in Asia, while the Southeast Asian countries are relatively weak. We could learn a lot from watching how these weaker nations engage with the two powers, such as their official visits to both countries.

Najib visited China between October 31 and November 6; Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was there from October 18-21; Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc from September 10 -15; Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi from August 17-21; Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni from June 2-4; Thai Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn from April 5-7; and Singapore foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan from February 28-March 2.

Let’s look at their engagement with Japan. Najib was in Japan from November 15-17; Indonesia’s minister for maritime affairs Luhut Binsar Panjaitan was there from November 9-10; Suu Kyi from November 1-5; Duterte from October 25-27; Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong from September 26-29; Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited Japan in late May.

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The Vietnamese premier went to Japan then China, Suu Kyi to China then Japan, Duterte also went to China then Japan ... and so on. As should be clear by now, how these smaller and weaker countries can survive – and thrive, with their dignity intact – in the shadow of China and Japan requires diplomatic finesse and the right strategic decisions. Such skill is not to be sniffed at.

A Vietnamese diplomat stationed in Hong Kong has often talked about how, to survive, his country has had to manoeuvre between China, France, the US, Russia and Japan. Vietnam knows it must make peace with its stronger neighbours, and learn to navigate the currents created by their rivalries – this is surely one reason for the country’s stability.

A country with a powerful neighbour must know how to keep a low profile, and be guided by pragmatism. One characteristic of Vietnam’s foreign policy is its flexibility in decision-making, based only on its own best interests.

If Beijing can understand this, it may be able to calm down amid all the noise and begin to understand the decisions of Southeast Asian countries.

Jiang Xun is deputy editor-in-chief of Yazhou Zhoukan, and editor-in-chief of Zero New Media. This is translated from the Chinese