Deng Xiaoping inspected the guard of honour at the tarmac of Singapore’s airport, walked up the steps to his Boeing 707 and then turned around to wave goodbye.

After the aircraft doors closed, he gave his staffers a dressing down. The Singapore he had just seen, in 1978, was nothing like the brief he had received. There had been no cheering Chinese crowds and the city he had visited for four days was more advanced and modern than any city in China.

“His brief must have come from communist sympathisers here and it was a slanted brief,” wrote Lee Kuan Yew in his book One Man’s View of the World.

In truth, Lee, then prime minister of Singapore, had no idea what happened between Deng and his entourage on the plane. He admitted as much, writing that he believed there was a scolding by the Chinese leader. But as the years morphed into four decades, fiction transformed into fact.

When Deng later credited Singapore as a model for China’s reform and opening up, Lee’s conjecture took on greater credence, earning the Lion City and by extension Southeast Asia (Deng also visited Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok during that trip in 1978) exalted status in communist China’s history.

However, since then, relations between Beijing and Southeast Asia have been far from linear. While Deng’s reforms 40 years ago meshed the two parties more closely, happiness has gradually given way to some bitterness as China has grown in strength and stature thanks largely to its embrace of the market economy.

EXPORTING REVOLUTION, IMPORTING FRIENDS

Deng’s 1978 trip was not merely to observe and study the three Southeast Asian capitals. It was also to rally Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) support against the Vietnam-Soviet Union axis which was threatening a communist domino effect in this region.

But Lee told him he was most unlikely to succeed. “The fact was that our neighbours wanted us to unite and isolate the ‘Chinese dragon’,” he wrote in From Third World to First, and not the “Russian bear”.

While China appealed to overseas Chinese through radio broadcasts and posed threats to Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, the Russians were a distant threat, and a counterweight to Beijing.

Forget Texas, China came out when Deng tipped his hat to Japan

When Lee advised Deng to stop the broadcasts, the Chinese leader listened – and a few years later, the transmissions from south China ceased.

It was a symbolic end to Beijing’s export of revolution to Southeast Asia through fraternal communist parties. And with it, relations moved from mutual distrust and hostility to an increasingly positive, albeit still uneasy, friendship in the 1980s. Trade began to climb and China and Asean found common cause in ending the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia.

In 1985, China even appointed Singapore’s former Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee as adviser on the development of its Special Economic Zones.

TIANANMEN AND HIROHITO

It took two unconnected and unfortunate events to bring Asean closer to China in the 1990s.

The first was the death of Japanese Emperor Hirohito in February 1989. At the funeral, Indonesian leader Suharto met Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen and both sides agreed to take steps to normalise relations.

The move was critical not only because of Jakarta’s pre-eminent position in Asean, but also a result of Chinese influence behind the attempted coup by the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965. Suharto’s move signalled Southeast Asia’s desire to put history behind it.

Second, four months later, the Tiananmen crackdown in June 1989 led to Western countries slapping sanctions on China and treating it as a pariah state.

Asean was altogether less hardline in its response. Singapore, for example, issued a carefully worded statement, recalled the country’s former Foreign Minister George Yeo in an article in Singapore’s Chinese-language daily Lianhe Zaobao this month.

“Though the statement expressed shock and disappointment, the tone was in sorrow, not in anger,” he said.

This kindness came amid tremendous pressure on China from the West – and Beijing remembered.

“The fact that Asean countries didn’t make any critical statements on China’s domestic politics made it possible for Beijing to view the region positively,” said Li Mingjiang from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“Asean’s neutral reactions to the Tiananmen incident accelerated the shift in Beijing’s policy assessment of Asean from suspicions to positive views that had been gradually taking place in the 1980s.”

In 1990, the People’s Daily declared the year a fruitful one for China and Asean.

Singapore played a critical role in China’s re-entry into the post-cold war world. Yeo revealed that in early 1992, US President George Bush asked Lee to convey a message from him to China to help normalise bilateral ties again.

US v China: don’t mock Asean’s divisions – Europe’s no better

The tiny island would become China’s role model in the same year when Deng made his southern sojourn to give the country’s moribund reform and opening up a new boost after Tiananmen.

“The social order in Singapore is quite good,” said Deng, no doubt still remembering his 1978 visit. “They run things strictly, and we should borrow from their experiences, and run things even better than they do.”

OPPORTUNITY IN CRISES

In many ways, China rose to the strongman’s challenge and embarked on double-digit growth in the 1990s, culminating in its saviour role during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.

At a time when Asean had hit a nadir with currencies deflated, millions of jobs lost and governments overthrown (including an unrelated violent coup in Cambodia), Beijing reached out and helped.

It refused to devalue its currency and undercut its beleaguered Asean neighbours, it provided aid and showed leadership. It promised to be a “safe island” amid the Asian sea of turmoil and lived up to it.

“That, coupled with Asean states’ unhappiness with Western funds’ manipulation of currencies, drew Asean closer to Asian countries like China,” said analyst Kong Tuan Yuen from Singapore’s East Asia Institute.

The friendship between Southeast Asia and China peaked thereafter. By 2004, trade exceeded US$100 billion for the first time – 50 times the US$2 billion registered in 1978 when reform and opening up was started.

Beijing went to great lengths to charm Asean during a summit in southern Guangxi to mark 15 years of relations in 2006, building a convention hall just for the occasion. Lee recounted the view of his Singapore cabinet colleagues then: “Delegates from all 10 Asean countries left Nanning with a profound impression that this is a very powerful country.”

It was awe mixed with admiration, with hardly a hint of anxiety.

When Beijing again played the role of Steady Eddie during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis by pumping in a 4 trillion yuan (US$576.1 billion) stimulus package to boost consumption, its cultivation of stronger bonds with its Southeast Asian neighbours clearly had borne fruit.

In 2010, China and Asean’s free-trade agreement started, bringing into being the world’s largest free-trade zone in terms of population.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

Yet as China enters a fresh era as an aspiring superpower, its warm relationship with Asean has quickly cooled.

While Asean has fewer misgivings with China’s economic power, with trade hitting US$515 billion this year, its constituent countries have become uneasy with Beijing’s growing diplomatic and military clout.

Asean and the art of living with China

The friendly panda of the 1990s and 2000s has given way to a fiery dragon, best caricatured by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s outburst during the Asean Regional Forum in July 2010 in Hanoi.

“China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact,” he said.

To Southeast Asia, the outburst was an omen.

Two years later, for the first time, foreign ministers at an Asean summit failed to issue a joint statement after significant obstruction by Cambodia under the direction of Beijing.

At the heart of the dispute is the South China Sea, which is claimed almost in its entirety by Beijing, though Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia have overlapping claims.

Even though Beijing’s claims are not new, its posture has changed dramatically since 1978. Gone is Deng’s mantra to “hide your strength, bide your time”. China now openly flaunts its prowess, showing off its enlarged islands and air strips.

Much of this plays to China’s domestic audience, stoking a nationalistic fervour which makes it harder and harder for the Chinese government to be seen to concede any ground.

“Inside China, there are all kinds of deeply rooted and strong views about China’s entitlement and rights in the South China Sea,” Li observed. “These views exist across the board, socio-political elites and among the public. This means that it’s very difficult for China to make fundamental changes to its positions and claims in the South China Sea.”

It doesn’t get any easier from Southeast Asia’s perspective, with most people viewing China’s claims to be illegitimate and a territorial overreach.

Asean lacks a consensus, with claimant states of the sea holding different views from the non-claimant states.

What good is Asean, Indonesia wonders

Member states also vary in attitudes towards China, with the likes of Laos and Cambodia widely seen to be close allies of Beijing while the others veer east across the Pacific, leaning more heavily on Washington.

While Asean and China have agreed on a single text to negotiate the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, it is only the beginning of negotiations expected to be long and painful.

“The South China Sea issue will continue to be an obstacle in the bilateral relations between Asean and China, unless a full-fledged code of conduct can be formalised to provide a legal basis for future solutions,” said Chen Gang from the East Asian Institute.

Add in the mix external powers such as the US, and the issue could continue to “curse” Asean-China relations for a long time, Li said.

“By ‘curse’, I mean that it will remain a major problem and there will be no solution. Beijing can make laborious efforts in engaging Asean and developing relations with Asean countries, but the South China Sea ‘curse’ is likely to create a ceiling for bilateral ties,” he said.

Such a curse casts a pall over China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”. There are growing suspicions that economic help from China is more debt-trap diplomacy than development aid.

While a China with a market economy may no longer want to export revolutions, it now has the economic wherewithal to subjugate smaller neighbours, a form of neo-colonialism.

After 40 years, China and Southeast Asia seem to have circled back to the same spot of uneasy neighbourliness, fluctuating between benign cooperation and wary realpolitik. But China today is nowhere close to the basket case it was in 1978, and Asean knows that, said Li.

“In reality, Asean countries understand that they cannot go back to history and interact with the China that existed before 1978.”