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.

ASEAN countries have high hopes as to how far the Chinese dream can trailblaze the growth of the region and provide the developmental slipstream for them to follow suit.

However, the region is, understandably, still wary as it bears fresh scars of at least two other dreams before this: one that carried the salvation of "the white man's burden" from the West, and another that sought to build a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" from the East.

Granted, the Chinese dream is categorically different from these expressions of imperialism cloaked in ideology, but one needs to understand the reasons why sovereignty is an overriding concern in the region and some react strongly to the movements of greater powers.

It should not be such a stretch for China, which bears the memory of the century of humiliation dealt by former European powers through their unequal treaties, to see that the concerns of its smaller regional neighbours run along similar lines.

China and South-East Asia have had a long history together, but they must also work hard at understanding each other better so that the confidence and trust that has been

built over time, albeit interrupted by occasional incidents, can be strengthened, consolidated, and built upon extensively. Trust and understanding are not built overnight, but we are not mistaken to think that the process has been going on for quite some time now.

Networks of relationships have been stitched across the region for centuries, from the trading routes and migration patterns of yesteryear to the regional production networks and the financial and business networks of contemporary times. Part of the reason why South-East Asia has been developing rapidly has been attributed to the "bamboo networks", the ethnic-based business networks built upon the hubs and spokes of the Chinese diaspora that intersperse the region, with firm roots in the local communities but sturdily connected to the regional landscape.

But while the "infrastructure" of trust has already been firmly built between China and South-East Asia in the form of these networks of ties, which some scholars refer to as the "invisible linkages" that hold us together, there needs to be a more concerted effort to bring about more interaction and discourse, which are the lifeblood of trust, to engage the various communities at multiple levels.

These connections and dealings must not only dwell exclusively on economic and security issues; although important and, some may even argue, central, there should also be some effort invested into exploring how the cultural and normative aspects of these relations can be worked upon and perhaps improved, presenting opportunities to further strengthen the trust and deepen the understanding between China and its smaller neighbours.

In this respect, the idea of moderation as espoused by Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and reiterated by him in his recent address to the United Nations General Assembly, may lend itself as a starting point in the search for mutualities of interest. This framework of moderation calls for the exercise of restraint and the creation of a discursive environment that allows for a multiplicity of voices to come together and collectively work towards solutions, defusing tensions and avoiding conflict.

This notion is perhaps compatible to the Chinese Dream; as China aspires for peaceful development with Chinese characteristics towards a moderately prosperous society, Malaysia and the rest of South-East Asia pursue their own goal of development that holds fast to moderate principles, so that their race towards becoming fully developed nations does not sacrifice their identities, traditions and culture, and sovereignty, the very things that make them what they are.

The idea of building a truly authentic East Asian community can begin with this very simple but powerful idea, and as Malaysia looks forward to assuming the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2015, it also looks to further strengthen ties between China, itself and the region through the values and principle of moderation.

Tan Sri Razali Ismail is Chairman of Global Movement of Moderates Foundation (GMM). The GMM is an initiative of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak that calls for combating the scourge of extremism in five broad areas - peaceful co-existence, democracy and rule of law, finance, education and conflict resolution. The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.