Sliding into the Red Dragon's embrace
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.
Children of migrant workers attend kindergarten class at the Qiang Jian Wen Wu school, on the west side of Beijing, China, in March 2015.