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China ‘needs to heed overseas unease’ as it moves to global centre-stage

The country cannot be complacent as concerns grow over nationalist pride and influence abroad, observers say

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 July, 2018, 9:25pm
UPDATED : Friday, 13 July, 2018, 10:37pm

China must be wary of nationalist pride and its visions of taking global centre-stage triggering unease among its neighbours, Chinese diplomatic observers said.

The assessment comes after various countries in the region, including Singapore, have expressed concern about China’s attempts to extend its influence abroad.

Some of those concerns emerged at a forum in Singapore last month, when Bilahari Kausikan, the city state’s former permanent secretary for foreign affairs, said China’s narrative about “Great Rejuvenation” involving “overseas Chinese patriotic friendly forces” was “dangerous” and “clumsy”.

“In plain language, what this means is that overseas Chinese should be persuaded, induced, or in extremis, coerced, into accepting allegiance to China as at least part of their identity,” he said.

Kausikan said the issue was “vitally important” for Singapore, which was still forging its national identity.

Most Singaporeans are ethnically Chinese.

From Singapore to the US, overseas Chinese are increasingly fearful of criticising Beijing. Is this what China wants?

But Hong Xiaoyong, China’s ambassador to Singapore, dismissed Kausikan’s concerns in The Straits Times, saying the fear was a “far cry from reality and leaves an unfavourable impression of China on others”.

Hong said Kausikan looked at China through “biased eyes” and made “misleading” and “misunderstanding” speeches.

“Every country hopes to gain recognition and support for its development philosophy and foreign policies,” he wrote.

“[China] has no intention of influencing Singaporeans’ sense of their national identity and will never do so.”

Zhuang Guotu, a Xiamen University professor specialising in the history of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, said other countries were becoming more worried about the rise of nationalism in China as it grew in economic might.

Zhuang said the idea of China as “the celestial empire” or “the middle kingdom” had been embedded deeply in Chinese culture for thousands of years, and resurfaced many times as China became a wealthy, strong and dominant regional power.

“In the past couple of years, there has been a significant boom in a nationalistic pride that maintains that China is returning to the world’s centre-stage, and this is something that both the government and the public should be alert to and deal carefully with,” Zhuang said. “Excessive complacency about being a great power on the rise should be avoided.”

Chinese nationalism is a double-edged sword for global ambitions

A recent report by AidData, a US-based project that tracks flows of development assistance, said China had secured valuable allies and partnerships by pouring US$45.8 billion into infrastructure investment in East Asia and the Pacific. It also said China’s efforts to cultivate ties with political elites might have its neighbours watching warily.

Other countries, including Australia and New Zealand, have expressed concerns over China’s influence and connections with local politicians.

Xu Liping, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said China was concerned that Kausikan’s remarks might have a negative impact.

“I don’t think Kausikan’s remarks means there is a significant distrust going on in the China-Singapore relationship at the moment. The current relationship is relatively in positive shape,” Xu said.

“But such remarks echo the ‘Chinese infiltration’ theories recently popular in the West as well as in Australia, which China has always wanted to clarify.”

Ren Yuanzhe, a Southeast Asian studies expert at China Foreign Affairs University, said China should put more effort into improving trust and minimising misunderstanding abroad.