Slid­ing into the Red Dragon's em­brace

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - ROGER MITTON roger­mit­ton@gmail.com

THE best ad­vice par­ents can give their chil­dren is sim­ple: For­get English, start learn­ing Chi­nese. It is not a friv­o­lous ob­ser­va­tion, for the in­flu­ence of Amer­ica and Europe has un­de­ni­ably waned, while China has stepped into the breach and es­tab­lished it­self as South­east Asia’s dom­i­nant power.

Con­se­quently, gov­ern­ments from Bangkok to Manila and from Ph­nom Penh to Nay Pyi Taw are trip­ping over them­selves to curry favour with Bei­jing.

It re­mains to be seen, how­ever, how much their peo­ple will agree to be drawn into this Sino-cen­tric whirlpool, and what, if any­thing, they can do if they don’t like it.

There have cer­tainly been ex­pres­sions of pro­found un­ease. Re­cently, a ar­ti­cle noted that Thai­land has be­come so sub­servient to Bei­jing that it has sac­ri­ficed its rep­u­ta­tion as a bal­anced re­gional leader.

Star­tlingly, the ar­ti­cle ob­served that peo­ple around the world were ask­ing, “When did Thai­land be­come a po­lit­i­cal colony of China?”

Ac­tu­ally, the ques­tion could be asked of most of the mem­bers of ASEAN, es­pe­cially of the so-called CLMV coun­tries – Cam­bo­dia, Laos, Myan­mar and Viet­nam.

All of that quar­tet, to a greater or lesser ex­tent, ap­pear to have be­come, or are in the process of be­com­ing, de facto colonies of China.

But first, let’s look at how the mil­i­tary regime in Bangkok is per­ceived as hav­ing be­come so servile to Bei­jing that even its own peo­ple find it ex­is­ten­tially threat­en­ing.

They point to the case of Joshua Wong, a young Hong Kong ac­tivist, who was in­vited this month to an event mark­ing the 40th an­niver­sary of a mas­sacre of stu­dents by the troops of an ear­lier mil­i­tary junta.

At Bei­jing’s re­quest, Wong was de­tained on ar­rival, sub­jected to the kind of treat­ment nor­mally re­served for hard­core ter­ror­ists, and then put on a plane back to Hong Kong.

That he had no crim­i­nal record and was legally en­ti­tled to en­ter Thai­land made no dif­fer­ence – when a na­tion is at the beck and call of Bei­jing, le­gal­i­ties do not mat­ter.

Like­wise, when Cam­bo­dia and Malaysia, like Thai­land, were told to re­turn Uighur refugees who face mis­treat­ment back home, they were promptly flown to China, shack­led and hooded, like Guan­tanamo de­tainees.

And when Western na­tions con­demn such in­hu­man­ity, it only plays into Bei­jing’s hands, for it never crit­i­cises coun­tries in this re­gion, but in­stead buys their fealty with in­vest­ments and aid money.

That is what has re­cently driven the Philip­pines, a treaty ally of the United States, into the sur­prised but im­mensely wel­com­ing em­brace of China.

The new Philip­pine leader, Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte, has vowed to ex­pel US troops, ac­cused the Amer­i­cans of try­ing to as­sas­si­nate him, and rained ob­scen­i­ties upon US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama.

Con­cur­rently, he has made it clear that he’s ready to get into bed with the Chi­nese and is ea­ger to cut a deal to set­tle their sovereignty dis­pute in the South China Sea.

So, just three months af­ter a United Na­tions tri­bunal ruled in favour of Manila, the Chi­nese find their erst­while ad­ver­sary not only grov­el­ling at their feet, but be­rat­ing their strate­gic ri­val, the United States.

Re­flect­ing, ad­mit­tedly more bluntly, the new Sino-cen­tric tilt of other ASEAN na­tions, Duterte said this month, “I will be re­con­fig­ur­ing my for­eign pol­icy. I will break up with Amer­ica.”

Nat­u­rally, Manila’s re­la­tions with Bei­jing have grown ever cosier and Chi­nese of­fi­cials hap­pily coo that they “can now talk like Asians across the ta­ble with Asians”.

Of­fi­cially, Wash­ing­ton has rightly said lit­tle about all this, pre­fer­ring to wait for Duterte’s wacky poli­cies, in­clud­ing this bizarre shelv­ing of a his­tor­i­cally tried and tested re­la­tion­ship, to cause his down­fall.

Oth­ers have been less ret­i­cent. Ad­mi­ral Den­nis Blair, a former head of the US Pa­cific Com­mand, said it is non­sen­si­cal for Manila to aban­don an al­liance with Wash­ing­ton in favour of closer ties with China.

Said Blair, “Such a strat­egy is more dan­ger­ous than clever and risks jeop­ar­dis­ing Philip­pine sovereignty by an­tag­o­nis­ing the United States and los­ing ter­ri­tory to China.”

The same could be said for all the CLMV coun­tries, which are in dan­ger of be­com­ing ir­re­vo­ca­bly and, it seems, will­ingly en­meshed in Bei­jing’s ten­ta­cles.

That was ev­i­dent when the new lead­ers of Myan­mar, Thai­land and Viet­nam chose to make their first for­eign visit to Bei­jing – for no other rea­son than that they know who is the re­gion’s boss these days.

Pres­i­dent Bounnhang Vo­ra­chit of Laos went in May, Myan­mar’s Daw Aung San Suu Kyi fol­lowed suit in Au­gust and Viet­nam’s Prime Min­is­ter Nguyen Xuan Phuc scam­pered there last month.

All paid trib­ute to the new em­peror, promised to fall in line at ASEAN meet­ings and agreed not to cause a fuss over China’s ag­gres­sive poli­cies and mil­i­tari­sa­tion of is­lands it has usurped in the South China Sea.

China’s Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping purred like a cat lap­ping up cream when he told Viet­nam’s obeisant Phuc that their na­tions’ mu­tual in­ter­ests “far out­weigh the dif­fer­ences”.

Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? It’s what he says to all ASEAN lead­ers as he plies them with trade and in­vest­ment in­cen­tives – and, without ex­pressly say­ing so, de­mands fidelity. And gets it.

As he does, for in­stance, from Cam­bo­dia, which, along with Laos, and the com­plic­ity of Myan­mar and Thai­land, rou­tinely forces ASEAN to re­tract any state­ments about the South China Sea that Bei­jing dis­likes.

Since China is the re­gion’s biggest trad­ing part­ner and largest provider of for­eign aid, this situation is only go­ing to be­come more and more pro­nounced. And there will be no come­back for Un­cle Sam.

So send your kids up north to Man­dalay and be­yond to prac­tise those Man­darin tones. Af­ter all, if you can’t beat them, bet­ter join them.

Photo: EPA

Chil­dren of mi­grant work­ers at­tend kin­der­garten class at the Qiang Jian Wen Wu school, on the west side of Bei­jing, China, in March 2015.

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