Coping with China's assertiveness

Coping with China's assertiveness

China and South-East Asia have had a long history together, but they still need to work hard to consolidate confidence and trust.

Recently, the Chinese Ambassador to Malaysia, Chai Xi, remarked that the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping will lift the bilateral ties of the two nations to a higher level.

Saying that the Sino-Malaysian relationship has taken the lead when compared to the other members of ASEAN, Chai pointed out that China has become Malaysia's biggest trading partner in the world, with the first seven months of this year recording a 14.9 per cent increase in bilateral trade to US$59.72billion (S$74 billion).

Indeed, Xi's visit to Malaysia was historic not only because it was his first state visit to the region since assuming office, but also in the sense that it marks another step in the continuation of the long history that Malaysia has shared with China.

It is a history that can be traced back to the 15th century, when the famous Chinese explorer Admiral Zeng He of the Ming Dynasty landed on the port city of Malacca only to find a thriving community of Chinese traders that had long established ties with the local population here.

Fast forward to the 20th century, into the height of the Cold War, and we have an international environment that is mired in suspicion and misperception, with loyalties mostly split along clear ideological lines. South-East Asia was a particular hotbed, and there was a great fear that China would turn its attention to the young and small nations of the region and begin forcibly exerting its influence to bring them under its sphere of control.

And yet, amid all the paranoia and balancing among all the nations in South-East Asia, Malaysia had the foresight of Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, who clearly understood the gravity and inevitability of China's peaceful rise when he pushed for Kuala Lumpur to be the first in the region to establish diplomatic relations and normalise ties with Beijing in 1974.

Those who express opinions implying that it is possible to shape the direction of regional security and development without including China display a worrying lack of understanding and appreciation of the lessons of history, particularly that of the region.

That China will fulfil its cyclical destiny and rise to take centre stage in Asia and become a major player in world affairs is no longer a question, but the character and nature of the rise will ultimately depend on how others might want to meet this rise halfway.

Successive Chinese leaderships have assured the rest of the world that their rise is a peaceful one, which does not seek to create ripples and waves in the international world order, and there is plenty of evidence to support that assertion.

China is in pursuit of rapid economic growth and expansion to lift its 1.3 billion-strong population into the developed world. In order to do this, China needs wide-ranging support from the global community and a stable and peaceful international environment.

But China's growing assertiveness, especially in the South China Sea, may unfortunately send the wrong signals to certain parties, and this is especially the case if there is very little understanding as to why China feels the need to proceed in such a manner.

The complexities and nuances that surround China's actions are likely to be lost if the nervousness and concerns of its regional neighbours are not promptly and clearly addressed.

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