The dynamics of size and the burden of history

The dynamics of size and the burden of history

China and South-east Asia are geographically contiguous. We have no choice but to live together. China and ASEAN have decided their relationship should be a "strategic partnership", the 10th anniversary of which was celebrated last year.

Today, ASEAN-China relations are indisputably one of the most crucial relationships in East Asia and an important pillar of regional stability and development. And yet, there remains an undercurrent of reserve.

The various maritime disputes in the South China Sea have received much attention, but they are not the central issue. They are symptoms of a far more fundamental issue that colours the entire ASEAN-China agenda: the sheer disparity of size between ASEAN and China and hence the fundamental asymmetry of the relationship between them.

The combined population of the 10 ASEAN member states is less than half of China's population; China's gross domestic product is almost four times larger than the combined GDP of the 10 ASEAN member states.

This asymmetry of size and thus of power is an empirical fact that cannot be wished away. Big countries are always going to provoke a degree of anxiety in smaller countries on their periphery.

This has nothing to do with the intentions of the big country; it is a reality faced by all big countries in every region throughout history. Big countries have a duty to reassure, a duty that China has only partially fulfilled. Small countries look at the world very differently from big countries.

I have come to the sad conclusion that it is almost impossible for big countries to understand how small countries think. Throughout my diplomatic career, I have failed to get Chinese friends to understand; they may intellectually grasp the difference but do not emotionally empathise with small countries.

This is probably true of all big countries everywhere. But it may well be particularly difficult for China to empathise because of justifiable pride in its achievements, the growing role of nationalism in the Chinese body politic and, above all, China's sense of destiny in reclaiming its historical place in East Asia and the world after "a hundred years of humiliation".

Recently a young Chinese intellectual of my acquaintance told me that Singapore's Prime Minister should not have expressed a view on the dispute between China and Japan over the islands the Chinese call Diaoyu and the Japanese call Senkaku, because the "Chinese people" took umbrage at a small country telling a big country what to do. I do not know how my acquaintance knew what 1.4 billion people were thinking, but the Prime Minister was only answering a question about a dispute that could affect the peace and security of the entire region.

A few years ago, a Senior Officials Meeting (SOM) leader from another ASEAN country told me that when his country was chair of ASEAN, the Chinese ambassador in his country forced him to move an ASEAN delegation out of the hotel that had been allocated to it so that former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao could be accommodated there.

The ambassador insisted on this even though both hotels were of equal quality. I doubt that Mr Wen knew about this or would have approved had he known. But the Chinese ambassador's attitude certainly made a deep impression on the SOM leader and the ASEAN delegation that was forced to move.

These incidents betray a mindset that does not serve the future of ASEAN-China relations well. The asymmetry of the relationship can only become more salient as China grows.

The boundary distinguishing China from the contiguous regions to its south has historically been fluid. The forces of globalisation, the many planned ASEAN- China projects, and initiatives like the new maritime silk route are re-establishing historical patterns in new ways and adding new layers of complexity to even the most positive of relationships. Unless the mindset that I have briefly described changes, the future may not be as smooth as both China and ASEAN hope.

S-E Asia's quest for autonomy

Modern South-east Asian history, like modern Chinese history, can be described as a quest for autonomy. In South-east Asia, the formation of ASEAN was a critical step in that quest. What was hard won will not be tamely relinquished by even the smallest country.

Where the balance of autonomy between big and small will eventually be struck is the crucial question that we must confront. It will be a critical influence on the evolution of what we mean by a "strategic partnership" between ASEAN and China.

ASEAN-China relations are an important pillar of regional stability and development, but it is by no means the most important one. US-China relations are clearly the most crucial for East Asian stability, with Sino-Japanese relations not far behind and Sino-Indian relations bound to grow in importance. Nor can the interests of countries such as South Korea, Australia and Russia be ignored.

All these relationships are intimately connected and influence one another. None of ASEAN's partnerships with major powers, however strategic they may be, can ever be exclusive.

I know Chinese friends do not like the word "balance", regarding it as a relic of the Cold War and directed against China. But this is not how ASEAN member states themselves see or use the concept. "Balance" is a vital concept for small countries because they can retain their autonomy only in the space created by a balance of major powers.

"Balance" in this sense is not directed against any country; rather, it is an omnidirectional state of equilibrium. No ASEAN member state wants to have to choose between any major powers. We want the best possible relationship with all the major powers. We seek "balance" in the context of an open and inclusive regional architecture in our own national interests and not at the behest of any major power or to hurt the interests of any major power.

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