Charm offensive

Print edition : June 03, 2011

China chooses to take its ties with Indonesia and Malaysia to a higher plane.

in Singapore

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, on a visit to Jakarta, with Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at Merdeka Palace on April 29.-ADEK BERRY/AFP

IN more than a metaphorical sense, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to Indonesia towards the end of April was aimed at ushering in a new and more vigorous spring in the ties between the two countries. Obviously, both sides wanted the new diplomatic spring to last longer than the climatic season.

East Asia, arguably poised to become the next big theatre in global affairs, is home not only to China as a superpower-in-the-making but also to Japan and Australia besides South Korea, all three being close allies of the United States in varying degrees. No less significantly, East Asia is also home to Indonesia and Malaysia, two proactive members of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) at one level and two key players in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at another. Moreover, Indonesia is ASEAN's current Chair.

Such elementary but essential aspects of the fact sheet on geographical East Asia is of considerable importance to China's diplomacy, especially because of the likely admission of the U.S. and Russia into the East Asia Summit (EAS) later this year. The EAS is actually a geopolitical organisation spanning the entire geographical East Asia minus North Korea and Timor Leste. More importantly, the EAS includes India, by no means a native of geographical East Asia, as a founding member.

Given such a complexity of the EAS network, especially so with the likely advent of the U.S. and Russia on this scene, China now chose to take its ties with Indonesia and Malaysia to a higher plane. The strategic bottom line in Beijing's policy towards these two countries extends beyond their independent bilateral ties with China. The centrality of Indonesia and Malaysia to ASEAN matters a lot to China, because this 10-member organisation is at present the driving force behind the EAS.

Questions have been raised in ASEAN circles, often behind the scenes, about the capabilities of this organisation to sustain itself as the central actor in the EAS after it throws its gates open to the U.S. and Russia later this year.

Of wider relevance to the emerging security architecture' in East Asia is Wen Jiabao's latest pledge of China's support for ASEAN's effort to stay as the driving force within the nucleus of an expanding EAS. China firmly supports ASEAN's leading role in regional cooperation, said Wen Jiabao in his discussions with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his colleagues in Jakarta on April 29. This was political music to the ears of ASEAN leaders. In the first place, they recently decided to invite the U.S. and Russia into the EAS because of a perception that China was now becoming more assertive, if not aggressive, in its interactions with its neighbours, including those in South-east Asia.

Obviously aware of ASEAN's original game plan behind the decision to expand the EAS to include the U.S. and Russia, Wen Jiabao now brought a new diplomatic nuance into play. While formally supporting the likely advent of the U.S. and Russia as newly designated members of the EAS, he specifically cited the European Union and other organisations as being relevant to the future of pan East-Asian cooperation.

He also emphasised, in the same breath, the independence and diversity of EAS members. In this broad context, the process of East Asian integration should, in his view, follow a pattern of incremental expansion of the existing processes of cooperation in the region. These processes are those of ASEAN's collective dialogue with each of its external partners individually and ASEAN's engagement with the group of three comprising China, Japan and South Korea. In addition, the cooperative exchanges within this group of three should be properly harnessed as part of the incremental and ASEAN-led process of integrating East Asia.

Expansive ties

Within such a vast field of China's East Asia vision, Wen Jiabao sought expansive ties with Indonesia at the bilateral level. As a conventional norm of recent decades in East Asia, Wen Jiabao and Yudhoyono explored new avenues of expanding bilateral economic and trade ties. Indonesia-China trade flows are subsumed by and spill beyond Beijing's free trade area with ASEAN as a whole.

Wen Jiabao was mindful of reminding the international community that the China-ASEAN zone was, as of now, the world's largest trading bloc among developing countries. From the Chinese standpoint, a matter of thoughtful engagement with Indonesia at the bilateral level was Wen Jiabao's visit to Al Azhar University in Jakarta. The new academic accent on the teaching of Chinese language there came in for due recognition and encouragement by the visiting leader. He also charmed the audience by participating in the rendition of an Indonesian folk song.

Nearly a week before Wen Jiabao's visit to Jakarta, Marzuki Alie, Chairman of the Indonesian House of Representatives, had travelled to China. A highlight of that visit was Marzuki's talks with a Chinese Muslim leader, Simayi Tieliwaerdi, a key functionary of the National People's Congress. Significantly, in the context of such focus on inter-state cultural engagement, Wen Jiabao met some prominent ethnic Chinese during his visit to Malaysia, which preceded his journey to Jakarta.

While in Kuala Lumpur on April 28, he met the descendants of some pioneers of Sun Yat-Sen's 1911 Revolution. A day earlier, Wen Jiabao visited the University of Malaya, also in Kuala Lumpur, for what turned out to be a lively interaction with the faculty and students there.

The official business of talks with the Malaysian leaders did cover issues such as trade, practical cooperation and strategic vision. Of particular interest to Wen Jiabao was Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak's view that China will continue to prosper and provide a very strong impetus in terms of global economic growth. Such statements might signify that China's latest charm offensive towards some key players in South-east Asia was worth the exercise after ASEAN had clearly sought to expand the EAS in a bid to try and meet the perceived challenge of Beijing's new assertiveness.

Changing dynamics

Beijing's likely place in the expanding geopolitical East Asia will be determined, at one level, by the changing dynamics of China's ties with other major powers. At another and related echelon, the changing dynamics of the overlapping ties among these other powers will also be important.

Illustratively, a piece of the new dynamics of likely interest to China is the seemingly simple bilateral details as narrated to this correspondent by top South Korean sources. According to them, Seoul and New Delhi have initialled a draft accord on civil nuclear cooperation for signature in due course. However, the South Koreans will first want to go the full course of their current accord with Russia on matters relating to outer space before any offers, including one from India, could be considered.

A non-EAS member like Pakistan, not just India as a founding EAS member, may also figure in the future discussions on the future of East Asia. China, in its latest comments on Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. forces, has lent grist to the Western diplomatic mills. The West tends to believe that China treats Pakistan in much the same way as the U.S. views Israel.

Transcending such dense details is the argument that East Asia tends to expand, while West Asia needs to guard against the possibility of a region-wide implosion. The West, with Europe in particular, is seen, in this scenario, as being preoccupied with managing the gradual loss of its old pre-eminence. And, the argument runs that China's likely role in East Asia acquires a larger-than-life dimension in this global context.

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